IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

South Carolina School Officer's Actions 'Over The Line,' Experts Say

It's unlikely a police officer was justified in dragging a student across her classroom, regardless of what led to the confrontation, experts say.
Get more newsLiveon

It's unlikely that a South Carolina police officer was justified in dragging a high school student across her classroom Monday, regardless of what led to the confrontation, experts say.

Details about what prompted the incident at Spring Valley High School in Columbia are still unclear. But education safety specialists say school resource officer Senior Deputy Ben Fields, who appeared to body-slam the student in cellphone video of the encounter, was over the line.

"There are situations where it is appropriate to touch someone or pick someone up, or move them for some reason. But body slamming? The school should not be the site of a WWF exhibit," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.

Related: Video Shows Cop Slam, Drag High School Girl

A classmate told NBC News that the student ignored requests from her teacher to go to a "discipline office," and officials said she refused Fields' order to leave the class for being disruptive.

"Typically, school officials will address issues of discipline matters, and officers will address matters of criminal offense. So the question is, what was this young lady doing? Was she simply being defiant, or were there illegal activities involved that would warrant a reasonable use of force?" Stephens said.

Even if she had committed a crime — a weapons offense or drug possession, for example — Fields' use of force appeared excessive, said Chris Dorn, an analyst for Safe Havens International, a campus safety non-profit organization.

"It's pretty clear this was over the line from looking at the video," Dorn said.

What makes it worse, he added, is how incongruous it is with what school resource officers, or SROs, set out to be.

While their backgrounds vary from school to school — sometimes they are police employees on loan to a specific school district, sometimes schools have their own police departments — a big part of their mandate is to form relationships with the students.

"You might be one of the only experiences that they have with a police officer," he said. "During school, they're enforcing and investigating, but they're also doing things like teaching classes on criminal justice and things like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)."

It's a tough job, he said, reserved for the "friendliest, better officers" who are good at working with people — specifically, with kids.

"Kids can be frustrating and difficult to deal with," he said. "When you're looking at any kind of use of force, whether it's something like this or firing a weapon, you've got a lot more considerations to think about in a school because of the crowded environment, number of people, age of the kids, and all that kind of stuff."

Sgt. Kevin Cargain, a school resource officer supervisor in Putnam County, New York, said situations with SROs "very rarely" ever get physical.

"There have been times when we've gotten physical with someone because it was absolutely necessary and there was a crime committed," he said. But usually, the nine SROs he oversees can calm students down just by talking with them.

No other information about what occurred at Spring Valley High School has been made public, including whether race was a factor. Fields is white, and the student is black.

Mo Canady, executive director for the non-profit National Association of School Resource Officers, said there wasn't enough information at this point to judge Fields, "but certainly, it doesn't look good."

"I think that until the investigation unfolds and we really begin to see clearly what led up to this it's going to be very difficult to say that he was right or wrong in his actions until that point," Canady said.

Fields has been placed on administrative duty while the Richland County Sheriff's Department investigates, and the FBI has been asked to do a separate probe. The confrontation has led to a firestorm of criticism, from the school district's Black Parents Association all the way up to 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Instead of a physical encounter, a more typical response to an issue with a student, the experts said, would be for an SRO to issue a warning. Sometimes SROs bring the student out to the hallway to speak with them alone, or if necessary, they might clear the classroom of other students and bring in back-up officers to help diffuse a situation.

Typically, only a couple situations merit using force, such as breaking up a fight, or pushing through a crowd to address an emergency, Stephens said.

"You run the risk of injuries and litigation if the student is hurt," he said. "There are ways to de-escalate the violence without this strongarm exhibition type of standard."