By Harriet McLeod
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - The white sheriff's deputy who is under federal investigation after he was caught on video flipping a black high school student out of her classroom chair in South Carolina was fired on Wednesday for violating department policy.
Deputy Ben Fields went too far when he picked up the 16-year-old and hurtled her across a classroom before arresting her, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told a news conference.
"That is not a proper technique and should not be used by law enforcement," Lott said.
Civil rights groups and several elected officials applauded the officer's dismissal, which came two days after videos by students at Spring Valley High School in Columbia recorded his rough handling of the teenager who Lott said had refused educators' orders to put away her phone and leave the class.
The videos quickly went viral, reigniting concerns that the proliferation of police in U.S. schools can criminalize behavior once handled more quietly by school officials.
A civil rights probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department into the arrest is under way and the state law enforcement division also is investigating. Some activists are calling for Fields, 34, to be criminally charged.
The sheriff said the student, arrested on a charge of disturbing school, also should be held accountable. The girl hit the officer as he tried to remove her from the class, Lott said.
"She was very disruptive, she was very disrespectful and she started this whole incident with her actions," the sheriff said.
Fields, who had worked for the sheriff's office since 2004 and joined its school resource officer program in 2008, has not commented. His attorney released a statement on Wednesday defending his actions.
"We believe that Mr. Fields' actions were justified and lawful throughout the circumstances of which he was confronted during this incident," attorney Scott J. Hayes said in the statement, according to local media reports.
It noted that Fields declined to speak about what happened at this time, as the case remains under federal investigation.
Some students said they called the deputy "Officer Slam" for his aggressive tactics. A federal lawsuit accusing him of targeting African-American students with false allegations of gang membership is set for trial in January.
The sheriff's office has not released Fields' personnel record. Lott said none of the past complaints against him came from the school district, where the sheriff noted he was respected as a school resource officer. An elementary school where he is also assigned gave him a "Culture of Excellence Award" last year.
The teacher and administrator who witnessed the encounter felt Fields acted appropriately, Lott said.
"They had no problems with the physical part," Lott said. "I’m the one who had a problem with it."
Supporters of the deputy voiced their displeasure over his firing under the hashtag #IStandWithBenFields on social media, countering an earlier #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh hashtag that trended within hours of the incident.
Lott said the girl was not hurt but her lawyer told ABC's Good Morning America she suffered injuries after being "brutally attacked."
"She now has a cast on her arm, she has neck and back injuries," said lawyer Todd Rutherford, who also serves as minority leader in the state's House of Representatives. "She has a Band-Aid on her forehead where she suffered rug burn."
The altercation occurred in a school district where African-American students make up nearly 59 percent of its 27,500 pupils. A black parents association has raised concerns about the rate at which African-American students are suspended and expelled there.
Outside Spring Valley High on Wednesday, Kennedy Scott, 15, said her classmates were split in their opinions of Fields' actions.
"Everybody has a different point of view," she said.
The teen's mother, Raquell Scott, 36, said the deputy deserved to be fired for slamming the student to the ground.
"It was terrible," the mother said. "He handled her like she was on the street."
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Editing by James Dalgleish and Alan Crosby)