COLUMBIA, S.C. – A South Carolina sheriff's deputy who flipped a student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor for refusing to leave math class could learn as soon as Wednesday whether he will be fired.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said once his agency's internal investigation is complete, he will make a decision about whether to keep Senior Deputy Ben Fields on the force.
"We're going to handle it appropriately and we're going to handle it very quickly. This is not something that should drag out," Lott told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. "I think the public demands and expects and should get a very quick answer on this, and that's what we're going to do."
The videos of the confrontation between a white officer and black girl stirred such outrage that Lott called the FBI and Justice Department for help. A criminal investigation was underway, but the probe generally takes more time.
"This is not something that should drag out"
Videos taken by students and posted online show Fields warning the girl to leave her seat or be forcibly removed Monday after she apparently texted in class and refused to surrender her phone to the teacher. When she doesn't get up from her desk, the officer wraps a forearm around her neck, flips her and the desk backward onto the floor, tosses her toward the front of the classroom and handcuffs her.
The sheriff suspended Fields without pay Monday. Lott, who rushed home from an out of town conference when the news broke, said the girl "may have had a rug burn" but was not injured, and that a teacher and vice principal in the classroom at the time felt the officer acted appropriately.
Lott said the initial video made him want to "throw up." But he also pointed out that the girl can be seen trying to strike the officer as she was being taken down. He said he's focused on the deputy's actions, not the student's.
Email, phone and text messages for Fields were not returned.
More than a dozen parents and community members spoke out at a Tuesday night meeting of the Richland 2 School District. Some, black and white alike, said the issue wasn't based on race, and, while the officer may have used unnecessary force, the whole incident shows that teachers and administrators need to work harder on finding ways to handle defiant students.
Craig Conwell was angry, imploring board members to take action and saying Fields should have been fired immediately.
"If that was my daughter ... that officer being fired would be the least of his worries," Conwell said. "We are sick and tired of black women being abused. You can say it's not racist all you want to."
The deputy also arrested a second girl who verbally objected to his actions. Both girls were charged with disturbing schools and released to their parents. Their names were not officially released.
The second student, Niya Kenny, told WLTX-TV that she felt she had to say something. Doris Kenny said she's proud her daughter was "brave enough to speak out against what was going on."
Lt. Curtis Wilson told The Associated Press in an email to "keep in mind this is not a race issue."
"Race is indeed a factor," countered South Carolina's NAACP president, Lonnie Randolph Jr., who praised the Justice Department for agreeing to investigate.
"To be thrown out of her seat as she was thrown, and dumped on the floor ... I don't ever recall a female student who is not of color (being treated this way). It doesn't affect white students," Randolph said.
The sheriff, for his part, said race won't factor into his evaluation: "It really doesn't matter to me whether that child had been purple," Lott said.
Tony Robinson Jr., who recorded the final moments, said it all began when the teacher asked the girl to hand over her phone during class. She refused, so he called an administrator, who summoned the officer.
"The administrator tried to get her to move and pleaded with her to get out of her seat," Robinson told WLTX. "She said she really hadn't done anything wrong. She said she took her phone out, but it was only for a quick second, you know, please, she was begging, apologetic."
Robinson said he pulled out his phone because he thought something was going to happen "that everyone else needs to see."
Lott said there have been school resource officers in the county ever since he has been sheriff for the last 19 years. He said the deputies have to receive more training and certification.
Many districts across the country put officers in schools after teenagers massacred fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Schools now routinely summon police to discipline students, experts say.
"Kids are not criminals, by the way. When they won't get up, when they won't put up the phone, they're silly, disobedient kids -- not criminals," said John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization.
The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that schools and police agree to prohibit officers "from becoming involved in formal school discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators."
Fields, who also helped coach the Spring Valley football team, has prevailed against accusations of excessive force and racial bias before.
Trial is set for January in the case of an expelled student who claims Fields targeted blacks and falsely accused him of being a gang member in 2013. In another case, a federal jury sided with Fields after a black couple accused him of excessive force and battery during a noise complaint arrest in 2005. A third lawsuit, dismissed in 2009, involved a woman who accused him of battery and violating her rights during a 2006 arrest.