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Davidson writes: "When she saw it was Fields, she said, she turned to some of her classmates. 'I told them to get the cameras out, because we know his reputation—well, I know his reputation.'"

The girl who was dragged out of her chair by a police officer at Spring Valley High School lacked the adult protection she deserves. (photo: New Yorker)
The girl who was dragged out of her chair by a police officer at Spring Valley High School lacked the adult protection she deserves. (photo: New Yorker)

What Niya Kenny Saw in a South Carolina Classroom

By Amy Davidson, The New Yorker

01 November 15


hen a deputy sheriff named Ben Fields walked into Niya Kenny’s math class at Spring Valley High School, in Richland County, South Carolina, she took out her phone and got ready to film him. One of her classmates was in trouble for not paying attention to the lesson and for taking out her own phone; she allegedly refused to leave when a teacher, and then an administrator, told her to. So they called for a school resource officer, as the in-house law enforcement is known. “We have two—I didn’t know which one was coming,” Kenny told the local newspaper The State. When she saw it was Fields, she said, she turned to some of her classmates. “I told them to get the cameras out, because we know his reputation—well, I know his reputation.”

There are, as a result, three videos of what happened next. Fields, a tall man, flips the girls out her seat and throws her across the room. As she lands, with a thud, he berates her and begins dragging her out, by which time Niya is on her feet.  “I was crying, like literally crying and screaming like a baby,” Niya told WLTX, the local CBS television station. “I was screaming what the F, what the F, is this really happening. I was praying out loud for the girl.” The teacher, meanwhile, just stands there; most of the students seem frozen, some half-hiding their eyes. One of the videos shows Fields yelling at Niya. But she wasn’t going to be quiet. Her reaction to what was happening, she told WLTX, was one of “disbelief,” mixed with something more:  “I know this girl don’t got nobody.”

The first girl, whose name has not been released, does appear to have been left without the protectors she deserves, in many senses. Fields has been fired, but Sheriff Leon Lott, in announcing that decision, made a point of saying that the teacher and administrator “supported” Fields’s actions. “Even the physical part. They had no problems with the physical part.” (The Sheriff, however, did have a problem, because Fields didn’t use “proper technique”—hence the termination.) Fields was a football coach, which seems to have made him popular with some students (on Friday, a few dozen assembled to show support for him), even as others knew him as “Officer Slam.” And the Sheriff kept returning, unbidden, to what seemed to be his main message: “We must not lose sight that this whole incident was started by this student. She is responsible for initiating this action.” He also said, “She was very disruptive, she was very disrespectful—she started this whole incident.” And she had to be “held accountable.”

Disrupting school is a crime in South Carolina, a misdemeanor carrying a possible penalty of ninety days imprisonment or a thousand dollar fine, and Sheriff Lott had no qualms about pronouncing the girl’s guilt, even though what he meant by “disrupting” sounded singularly vague; there is no allegation, for example, that she was screaming or throwing things in the class, but, rather, as the Sheriff haltingly put it, “she wasn’t doing what the other students were doing…. He was trying to teach … she was preventing that from happening by not paying attention.” He said that one of the videos showed her “striking Ben Fields and resisting,” though what it actually shows looks like shocked flailing. In an earlier press conference, the Sheriff said that the girl had no injuries except possibly “rug burns”; asked why there were now reports that she had multiple injuries, he suggested that they had emerged only “now that she has an attorney.” She needs someone. (There have been conflicting reports about her family situation, including about whether she may have been in foster care at some point; Simone Martin, one of her attorneys, would confirm only that the girl’s mother, contrary to one report, is not dead; Martin declined to comment on her father, or any other aspect of her family situation.) When she sat there, in class, not brightly following the lesson, not moving, Niya appears to have known that, and probably some of the other children did, too. The adults running the school decided that they were witnessing a crime—actually, multiple crimes.

“I just couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny told WLTX. “I was just crying and he was like, ‘Since you have so much to say, you coming too…. You want some of this?’ And just put my hands behind my back.” Both girls were arrested, on the charge of “disturbing the school.” Spring Valley’s policy is part of a larger move, across the country, toward criminalizing school discipline. (Yesterday, the Times reported on an internal e-mail exchange at the Success Academy, a charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which mentioned encouraging certain first-graders to withdraw from the school, in part by calling 911 if they caused trouble.) It is as if there is a general wariness toward children, particularly black or other minority children, or perhaps a blindness to the fact that they are children at all. (Another example is the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old who was shot dead in Cleveland seconds after the police saw him playing in a park with what turned out to be a toy gun.) When Sheriff Lott was asked, at the press conference, if the charges against Niya, at least, might be dropped, he sounded almost offended. “To my understanding, no charges have been dropped against anybody,” he said. “And, to my understanding, the charge is going to continue. What they did was wrong. They violated the law.” He said he didn’t “know all the facts” (which is certainly true) and was glad that the incident had been filmed—and yet he seemed to feel that he knew enough to condemn two young girls. Even when a reporter pressed him on the point—Niya had only stood up, after all, in response to what even he was now acknowledging was unacceptable behavior by a law-enforcement officer—he said, “She still disrupted class. You saw other students that did not disrupt class. They sat there, and they did what students are supposed to be, and that’s well-disciplined.” He also didn’t like Niya Kenny’s “language.”

But it’s the two girls who have had their education disrupted—Niya told The State that she has been suspended—and her record may have an arrest on it. She is due in court in December, though perhaps prosecutors will have seen some sense by then. (The F.B.I. is investigating whether the students’ civil rights have been violated, or if another crime has been committed.) “It should have been an adult, that’s what I think,” Niya told The State. “One of the adults should have said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa—that’s not how you do this.’ ” Niya’s mother, at least, told reporters that she was proud of her, and that seems right. In a moment when a classroom was full of shouting, Niya understood the difference between an adult with a badge and a child who was alone—or even just between an adult and a child. your social media marketing partner
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