Feds drop prosecution of Spring Valley High resource officer

The Justice Department on Friday said it has dropped its investigation of a former Spring Valley High School Resource Officer who had been accused of using excessive force against a black female student in an Oct. 26, 2015 incident that made national news.

In a press release, the federal government said there was “insufficient evidence” that former Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Benjamin Fields violated the civil rights of student Niya Kenny.

Student footage of Richland County Deputy and Spring Valley High SRO Benjamin Fields and Niya Kenny made national headlines when the incident occurred in October 2015. (Image provided)

After being summoned to the classroom to handle a disruptive student, Fields was caught on student video grabbing and forcibly removing Kenny from her desk and taking her to the ground over an incident in which Kenny had ignored repeated warnings to put away her cell phone and leave the room.

Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of South Carolina, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI met Friday with the student’s family and their representative to inform them of the government’s decision.

Meantime, Fields has sued over the incident, claiming the attention has ruined his reputation. The lawsuit against Richland School District Two, Sheriff Leon Lott and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, which was filed January 10, is seeking damages for defamation, negligence, and wrongful termination.

Fields was subsequently fired over the incident by Lott. However, the state last year said it also would decline to prosecute Fields, and also dropped charges against Kenny for disturbing school.

Federal authorities said they conducted a “comprehensive investigation into the use of force” by Fields when arresting the student for violating South Carolina’s law against disturbing schools. Working with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, federal authorities conducted witness interviews, evaluated video footage of the incident, reviewed training records, examined the policies of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) and consulted with use-of-force experts.

“Under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right,” according to the Justice Department.

“To establish willfulness, federal authorities must show that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law. Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation,” the department added.

“After a careful and thorough investigation, the team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fields willfully deprived the Spring Valley High School student of a constitutional right,” the Justice Department concluded.

While the government said it would not prosecute, the incident nonetheless has led to positive changes.

Among them, the department’s Office of Justice Programs reached a comprehensive agreement with RCSD to promptly enact critical changes to its SRO program in order to ensure full compliance with federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination against students based on race, color, national origin and disability.

As part of this settlement, the RCSD is now required to provide intensive, annual training for all SROs on de-escalation, bias-free policing and youth development, and to develop policies to minimize school-based arrests.

RCSD has moved forward since the Spring Valley incident and we will continue to do so,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Friday following the announcement. “We have been involved in using this incident as a positive learning opportunity for law enforcement, schools and the public in defining the roles of SROs and school officials, not only in Richland County but throughout the United States.

“I hope and pray our Legislators will also use the Spring Valley incident as s vehicle for change in the disturbing schools law,” Lott added. “Getting SROs out of the roles of discipline and classroom management has already made a significant impact.”

Lott would not comment on Fields’ suit.

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