Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Race and Discipline in Spotlight After South Carolina Officer Drags Student
New York Times
OCT. 27, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Videos of a white sheriff’s deputy throwing a black high school girl to the floor of a classroom thrust this community into an unsettling national discussion Tuesday about whether black students are disproportionately punished.

The incident, which the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would investigate, follows national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses.

That issue was receiving intense scrutiny here long before the videos of Monday’s incident were released, prompting the district to form a task force last year to examine its practices.

Last year, the racial divide in the Richland School District Two, encompassing parts of this city and its suburbs, led to the formation of the Black Parents Association, and contributed to a bitter campaign for control of the district’s board.

Yet this community fits no neat stereotype of racial tension. It has at times been seen as a model of amicable integration, where students of divergent backgrounds socialize together. And while some students have called the deputy overly rough or racist, others, of all races, defend his record in the school — if not his behavior on the videos.

A collection of videos that have led to nationwide protests, federal investigations and changes in policy and attitudes on race.

The videos showed a sheriff’s deputy assigned to Spring Valley High School struggling with a 16-year-old girl who had refused to stand and leave her math class, after the teacher reportedly caught her using her phone. The deputy, Ben Fields, tipped the girl’s chair and desk backward, lifting her out of her seat and slamming her to the floor, and then dragged her to the front of the classroom, where he cuffed her hands behind her back.

Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County said at a news conference Tuesday that in one video, when the deputy grabbed the girl, she could be seen punching him, but he said his focus was on whether the deputy followed departmental rules. “That’s what the internal affairs investigation is doing, and the results of that will determine his further employment here,” he said.

“Even though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy, I’m looking at what our deputy did,” Sheriff Lott said.

He deflected a question about the role of race, saying Deputy Fields has a black girlfriend.

On Monday, the sheriff placed Deputy Fields on unpaid leave, and asked for a federal investigation. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, along with the F.B.I. and the United States attorney for South Carolina, said Tuesday that it would look into the incident.

James Manning, the chairman of the district’s board, said the use of force “appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary.”

Deputy Fields has been the subject of two federal lawsuits about his conduct in the past. A jury found in his favor in one, and the other is pending.

In Richland Two, where 59 percent of students are black and 26 percent are white, 77 percent of those suspended at least once in 2011-12 were black, according to figures compiled by the Justice Department, though details to allow a comparison of the offenses were not readily available. And South Carolina relies much more on suspension than the nation as a whole; 24 percent of public school students in the state were suspended at least once that year, compared with 13 percent nationwide.

Black parents have complained that school discipline is arbitrary and disproportionately affects black students, said Stephen Gilchrist, a founder of Richland Two Black Parents Association. The group was formed in early 2014 to address such concerns and to increase black representation among the school district’s leadership.

The district’s population is 46 percent black and 44 percent white, and before the elections on November 2014, there were four whites and three blacks on the school board.

As the Black Parents group became more visible last year and its members promoted black school board candidates, a rival group emerged, the Bi-Partisan Committee. Its seven principal members were white, and it backed a slate of three whites and one black candidate for the board.

Leaders of the Bi-Partisan Committee, including John Hudgens, a former district superintendent, said Tuesday that the black group wanted to force the district to hire on the basis of race, not talent. During the campaign, the Bi-Partisan Committee sent a flier accusing the Black Parents group of overemphasizing race.

The Black Parents group responded on its website, saying the district had “an apartheid system” and comparing the committee to the White Citizens Councils that resisted desegregation in the 1960s. The Bi-Partisan Committee’s favored candidates, including its black candidate, won three of the four seats, giving the board four black and three white members.

This year, the district’s task force on student misconduct recommended the adoption of policies specifying “a consistent set of consequences for infractions at each level.”

James T. McLawhorn Jr., the chief executive of the Columbia Urban League and a member of that task force, said that over the last generation, as the schools gradually shifted away from being mostly white, residents failed to grasp how the approach to discipline was also changing. But he cautioned against drawing broad negative conclusions from Monday’s incident.

“I don’t think the environment in District 2 was of such a nature that anything like this was brewing,” he said. As the community became more diverse, parents, students and school employees of different background worked well together, said Stephen W. Hefner, who worked in Richland Two for 36 years, including 16 as superintendent, and now oversees another district nearby.

“To me, it was a magic kingdom, it really was, and one of the reasons for me feeling the magic there was heavily rooted in its diversity,” he said. “To me, it was as close to a model as you would find anywhere in the country.”

But “there were always issues of concern about discipline,” he said, especially with the rise of zero-tolerance policies that led to more suspensions across the country.

The number of students suspended here understates the district’s use of suspensions, because some are suspended more than once in a year. The district suspended about 5,800 of its 26,000 students in 2011-12, but there were more than 10,000 suspensions. Last year, that figure was down to 8,800 suspensions.

Some Spring Valley students on Tuesday praised Deputy Fields, an assistant football coach, as fair and friendly, a professional, authoritative everyday presence in the halls of the vast tan complex set near a few big-box stores.

“It was crazy — Deputy Fields was always nice to everyone,” said Quentin Jones, 15, a sophomore. But “there’s no reason for him to do that to a lady,” he said, “because he’s a grown, strong man.”

Xavier Glover and Jaiden Garner, two 15-year-old black football players, said that like many coaches, Deputy Fields would yell at players to improve their performance, but they said he had students’ interests at heart.

Nygel King, 16, said the video stunned him. “I’ve never seen him be superaggressive with another student,” he said.

But in a sworn affidavit filed this year as part of a federal lawsuit against Deputy Fields, Christopher Dewitt said that as a student in 2013, he “personally witnessed Deputy Fields call two of my friends at Spring Valley High School the ‘n-word.’ ”

The suit, filed by a former Spring Valley student, Ashton Reese, charged that the deputy “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”

Witnesses to Monday’s incident said that in an Algebra 1 class, the girl, a sophomore, was on her phone, and the teacher told her to put it away. The teacher summoned an administrator, who brought in the deputy. The adults repeatedly asked the student to get up and leave the class, but she refused.

When the altercation occurred, students stood up, confused about what was happening, but the deputy told them, “Sit down, or you all will be next,” said one student, Charles Scarborough, 16. Adding to the surprise and confusion, several students said the girl was usually quiet and not a troublemaker.

The deputy also detained a second student, Niya Kenny, 18, who told a local television station that her only offense was objecting to his treatment of the other girl.

“I was crying, like literally screaming, crying like a baby,” Ms. Kenny told WLTX. “I’d never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl.”

As she protested, she said, “he said, ‘Since you’ve got so much to say, you’re coming, too.’ ”

Richard Fausset reported from Columbia, Richard Pérez-Peña from New York, and Alan Blinder from Atlanta. Natalie Pita contributed reporting from Columbia.

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