COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after a deputy flipped a student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor for refusing to leave her math class.
Federal help was sought by Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who called what happened at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, "very disturbing" and placed Senior Deputy Ben Fields on leave.
The sheriff's department said no one was hurt, but the confrontation prompted outrage after it was recorded and shared online. One student said it started when the girl refused her math teacher's request to hand over her cellphone during class.
During the moments posted online, Fields warns the girl to stand up or be forcibly removed. The officer then wraps a forearm around her neck, flips her and the desk backward onto the floor, and tosses her toward the front of the classroom, where he handcuffs her.
A second student was arrested for verbally objecting to the girl's treatment. 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 confirmed that Fields is white and the students involved are black, but told The Associated Press in an email to "keep in mind this is not a race issue."
South Carolina's NAACP president, Lonnie Randolph Jr., denied that, saying "race is indeed a factor."
"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.
Tony Robinson Jr., who recorded the final moments, said it all began when the teacher tried to confiscate a phone the girl took out 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 on what happened and everything."
"Next, the administrator called Deputy Fields in ... he asked, 'will you move,' and she said 'no, I haven't done anything wrong,' Robinson said.
"When I saw what was going to happen, my immediate first thing to think was, let me get this on camera. This was going to be something ... that everyone else needs to see, something that we can't just let this pass by."
Districts across the county put officers in schools after two teenagers massacred fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Schools now routinely summon police to discipline students.
"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.
Police officers should be posted at entrances to "stop the crazies from getting in these schools," Whitehead added. "When you have police in the schools, you're going to run into this — having police do what teachers and parents should do."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson called the video a "national disgrace."
"This man should be arrested, charged, fired and sued," Jackson said on his way to Columbia. "The department should be sued."
Mayor Steve Benjamin also called for an independent investigation. School Superintendent Debbie Hamm said "the district will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students." School Board Chairman Jim Manning said "there is no doubt that the video is extremely disturbing. The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary."
It was an "egregious use of force," ACLU of South Carolina Executive Director Victoria Middleton said.
Fields 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.
Contributors include Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C.