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S.C. Sheriff's Office, Justice Dept. Agree to Stem Bias With School Police Training

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A series of screen grabs from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student last year shows Ben Fields, a sheriff's deputy, forcibly removing a student from her desk after she refused to leave her high school math class in Columbia, S.C. Fields was fired, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating, and the incident has sparked an effort in South Carolina to change a state law that can lead to students being arrested for behavior that is not considered a crime off school grounds.

The South Carolina sheriff's department whose school-based officer drew headlines when he violently arrested a student last year has signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, under which it will set new policies and provide extensive training to deputies who work in 60 schools in three area districts..

The agreement, signed by the Richland County Sheriff's Office, settles a civil rights review. A separate investigation will determine if Richland County Officer Ben Fields violated civil rights laws when he threw a black student from her desk last year, arresting her on charges of "disturbing a school" after she refused to put away her cell phone in class. A video of the arrest, filmed by another student, spread quickly online and sparked debates about the role of police in schools.

Also this week, the student who recorded that video joined several other plaintiffs and the ACLU in filing a lawsuit calling the state's "disturbing schools" law overly broad and unconstitutional, and the state's board of education took initial steps to limit the role of law enforcement in schools.

A branch of the Justice Department completed the Richland County review under a special initative designed to curb the "school-to-prison pipeline" by determining if school resource officers are complying with federal civil rights laws, the agreement says. Under the Obama administration, federal officials at the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education have taken aim at school arrests and punitive disciplinary practices, which disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities.

Under the agreement, the sheriff's office will:

  • Conduct a data-driven analysis of the policies, procedures, and practices of its school resource officer program.
  • Create a data collection program to monitor its compliance with civil rights laws.
  • Develop policies to work with special needs students and to minimize school-based seizures and arrests.
  • Provide "intensive, annual professional development to [school resource officers] on de-escalation, bias-free policing, adolescent development, and other topics designed to appropriately meet the needs of students with disabilities and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in seizure and arrest rates.
  • Revise agreements with school districts.
  • Establish a community group, including student and parent members, to provide feedback on issues related to school-based police officers.
  • Work with external consultants to improve its non-discrimination practices.

Photo: A series of screen grabs from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student last year shows Ben Fields, a sheriff's deputy, forcibly removing a student from her desk after she refused to leave her high school math class in Columbia, S.C. Fields was fired, and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the incident. --AP Photos

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