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S.C. deputy fired: Do cops belong in classrooms at all?

A school resource officer's violent removal of a student from a classroom in Columbia, S.C., has reignited debate over the role of law enforcement officers in schools.

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Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott speaks during a press conference in Columbia, S.C., in this image taken from video on Tuesday. Sheriff Lott suspended Ben Fields, a senior deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, without pay after a video showed Fields forcibly removing a student who refused to leave her high school math class at Spring Valley High School.

Alex Sanz/AP

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Outrage spread quickly after videos of a white resource officer flipping a black student out her desk and tossing her across the floor in a South Carolina classroom appeared on the Internet on Monday.

It’s unclear if race played a factor in the incident at Spring Valley High School in Columbia. So too is the question of whether the officer should have been in the classroom in the first place.

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Senior Deputy Ben Fields was brought in to remove the disruptive student after she refused to follow a teacher and an administrator’s order to leave the classroom. When she refused again, Deputy Fields told her she was under arrest, according to Richland Country Sheriff Leon Lott.

Video shows him then flipping the student backwards then throwing her across the room and handcuffing her. Sheriff Lott said at that point Fields did not use proper procedure.

Fields has been fired and banned from school district property as a result of the incident. Meanwhile, federal and state authorities have launched investigations into his actions. Whether he will face charges remains uncertain.

"Police officers make mistakes too,” Lott said. “They're human and they need to be held accountable, and that's what we've done with Deputy Ben Fields.”

The incident highlights the debate over programs that put police in schools. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass reported earlier this week, the number of school resource officers, or SROs, in American schools has increased dramatically in recent years. But their contributions to school safety have been decidedly mixed. 

Some research has shown that an increased police presence in schools leads to more offenses of all types – whether serious or frivolous – being referred to law enforcement, resulting in police inappropriately replacing teachers as disciplinarians. Critics say SROs make schools feel more like jails.

But police officers in schools can give parents peace of mind about their children’s safety, and they also can improve young people's perceptions of law enforcement, which is particularly important given the current lack of public confidence in police, some experts say. 

For their part, officials in Richland School District Two plan to “thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption," Superintendent Debbie Hamm said in a statement.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.