School Officer Who Slammed Black Teen to Ground in Viral Video Still Thinks He’s the Victim
The SXSW doc ‘Spring Valley’ revisits a South Carolina school resource officer who dragged a Black teen from her desk and examines how cops in schools can create a prison pipeline.
During what was supposed to be a quiet math class on a Monday in October 2015, Shakara, a 16-year-old Black girl, was violently yanked from her desk by an impatient school resource officer. He wrapped his arm around her neck, flipped her over, dragged her across the carpeted ground, and put her in handcuffs. What warranted this aggressive use of force? The teen wouldn’t budge from her seat when a teacher claimed she wouldn’t hand over a cell phone that she didn’t have.
What happened at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina might have gone under the radar if it wasn’t for Shakara’s classmate Niya Kenny, who began filming the incident. In recent years, cameras have often been a Black person’s only form of defense. In the cases of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and North Charleston local Walter Scott, video footage can upend an initial police report, mobilize protesters, and sometimes lead to an officer’s arrest.
“I encouraged the kids to take out their cameras because I just knew that something could go from 0 to 100,” Kenny told the filmmakers of Spring Valley, which premieres Wednesday at this year’s virtual SXSW festival. “It definitely did.”
The video is unsettling to watch. Two classmates scoot their desks out of the way as Senior Deputy Ben Fields approaches Shakara, who remains mostly quiet during the physical assault. In fact, the entire room is eerily silent, apart from Fields yelling at Shakara to give him her hands and the sound of her body slamming against the ground. “What the fuck did she do?” Kenny yells out. Fields then threatens her, saying, “I’ll put you in jail next.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Both Shakara and Kenny were arrested and faced criminal charges of “disturbing school.” Shakara was a minor, so she was released into the care of her foster mother. Meanwhile, Kenny, 18, was carted off to jail in a paddywagon and kept in a holding cell with adult women.
If it wasn’t for Vivian Anderson, a healer-activist who uprooted her life to buy a one-way plane ticket from Brooklyn, New York, to go to bat for Shakara and Kenny, the girls could have been convicted of the charges.
Director Garrett Zevgetis is behind the documentary, focusing not only on Anderson’s efforts to get justice for these girls but also questioning the overall need of having security resource officers (SRO) in schools in the first place. It helps examine the role that racial biases can play when these officers are dealing with Black students.
Anderson and Zevgetis agree they’ve become like family, although Anderson admits she was wary when first approached by Zevgetis and his team about the documentary. “At first it's like, OK, who are all these white people that want to be around these Black girls,” she laughs.
“But that quickly went away because of how [Zevgetis] shows up. His level of integrity made it easy for me to be with him. So, it wasn't a hard four years. Like I said, they're a family now. That's one of my brothers.”
The most fascinating element of the film are interviews with Fields, who was fired from Spring Valley following the assault. But five years later and after sitting down with Anderson to discuss the factors that played into that day, Fields just doesn’t get it. He sees himself as the lone victim, insisting, “The only one who was actually punished was Ben Fields. I lost my job.”
Fields says this while ignoring the fact that both Kenny and Shakara withdrew from Spring Valley after their arrests because they no longer felt safe in that environment. Shakara had to relive her trauma over and over again when the video went viral. (Fields said he saw the video maybe once because it was “hard to watch,” yet still says his actions were justified.)
Even when bestowing an award upon another high schooler who was thrown to the ground by an SRO, Shakara can barely make it through her sentence about what happened without breaking down into tears. She admits she was depressed and tried to commit suicide. Shakara spent four years afterward earning her GED. And even with the help of Anderson, it took a year for the charges against Shakara and Kenny to be dropped.
Still, Fields remains unmoved in his lack of comprehension of how race and systemic failures contributed to that fateful day. He consistently defends himself and refuses to accept that he might have biases, pointing out that he dated a Black teacher and growing up, “he loved going to the projects and being the only white guy” there.
For Anderson, it wasn’t so much frustration when Fields didn’t seem willing to waver on his view of the world—it was infuriating.
“One of the things I’ve always believed is giving people space and grace. It didn't get frustrating until after he stopped communicating, because I still think there's a window as long as communication is open. But the minute he stopped communicating, that made me say, ‘You really don't want to get it. You are comfortable being so right, no matter how wrong you really are. You're not open to anything.’ When people aren't open, that's the part that became infuriating for me.”
“I know you have Black girls or women in your life,” Anderson said of Fields. “I think I became more scared because I'm like, ‘Lord, please let these people be safe in his presence’ because even without physical harm, there's words that can be said that can create harm and trauma for others, especially Black women and girls. So that scares me more than anything.”
The most illuminating example of Fields being unwilling to accept an alternative viewpoint occurs when he’s chatting with Anderson and her colleague Carrie Dennison Elliott, who advocates for SRO training reform.
The conversation becomes heated when Fields begins talking about schools ignoring “bad behavior” which then leads to criminal behavior, using the case of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz as an example.
“Criminal behavior is criminal,” counters Elliott. “It’s not criminal for me to roll my eyes at a teacher. There are certain people who get the benefit of being humanized no matter how grotesque the behavior can be. Dylann Roof got to go to Burger King and get a burger after he had just murdered nine people.”
“Those are conspiracy theories,” Fields interrupts. When the women groan, Fields backpedals and says, “I’m not saying that’s not the truth. But in interrogation, we give suspects food all the time. That’s not an uncommon thing to do.”
“He gets to be interrogated, African Americans primarily get to be dead,” Elliott shoots back.
“That’s false but OK,” a visibly annoyed Fields shrugs.
“OK, Walter Scott, did he get to be interrogated?” Elliot asks.
“You are making blanket statements about things that you are not educated on,” Fields replies.
By that point, the women have had enough, but Fields continues to say he “100 percent” disagrees that Black students face a different level of punishment than their white peers before claiming the women are attacking him.
Anderson said she had to laugh at Fields’ nerve to say the two women were uneducated in roles into which they’ve thrown their whole lives. “I remember sitting there like, OK, ‘There goes that white shit again,’” she laughs. Anderson said she had to take a step back and process the conversation that was unfolding.
Still wanting to help facilitate Fields’ learning, she let Elliot take the lead because she knew in order to keep Fields engaged, he couldn’t feel attacked. But the conversation ends with the parties at odds. The women have had enough when Fields says he “100 percent” disagrees that Black students face a different level of punishment than their white peers and claims he’s being attacked.
Elliot tells Fields he has no business being around children and later debriefs with Anderson. “I refuse to be responsible for the education of Ben Fields because I’m overloaded,” she says.
But Anderson says she’s committed to trying to help Fields learn—in the same way she is devoted to seeking racial and social justice. She was only meant to be in South Carolina for a few days to drum up support for Shakara and Kenny. Yet, five years later she’s still there and continuing to advocate for young Black girls, founding EveryBlackGirl, Inc., a nonprofit that strives to create radical and systemic change for Black women.
In an emotional moment with friends, Anderson explains why she dropped everything to be there. Growing up, she had an incident similar to Shakara’s. She had also been up all night dealing with personal issues at home. During math class, she had tried to question a friend over the instructions the teacher had just given the class.
When the teacher began chiding her for talking and accusing her of having a smart mouth, Anderson wasn’t having any of it. The teacher brought out a paddle, used back in the day to discipline students with a stiff whack on the behind.
“That day I was really tired,” Anderson explains. “I was like, ‘Not today. Y’all don’t know what I went through last night. I ran from a brother all night. Nobody is touching me, nobody is hitting me, nothing.’ That man had to race me around the whole classroom until he got tired. And then he said, ‘I’m tired of you, leave.’ The difference? A social worker caught me and said, ‘Who hurt you?’ Changed my relationship with the school forever.”
Her voice cracking, Anderson questions, “What if somebody just asked [Shakara] what was going on?”
“I was hurt,” she continues. “I remember being like ‘No, I just got beat last night. I got touched in places I didn’t want to be touched.’ So, when I saw that video, a lot of stuff came up for me. I was like no, they don’t get to walk this alone. I know what it’s like to walk this alone. They don’t get to walk this alone.”
Both Anderson and Zevgetis stress that the film isn’t about Fields and isn’t necessarily about Shakara either, but the wider issue of SROs being in middle and high schools.
“There are no minimum requirements for an SRO to be in [some of these] schools, no extra training,” Zevgetis says. “So, it's a systemic issue. We really want people to have critical thinking and to find out who's in their school. They're not being vetted and so to find out their history.”
Around 67 percent of high schoolers and 45 percent of middle schoolers attend schools with at least one SRO on campus, according to an Urban Institute report from 2018. Zevgetis points to an ACLU statistic that found that 1.7 million students attend schools where there’s an SRO but no counselor.
“What's that? What's happening?” he asks. “Even the ones that do have counselors, it's out of proportion. These schools have very limited funds, and they have a choice; spend it on counselors and social workers or instead, especially in schools that are predominantly children of color, do they just put a police officer there and then say, ‘That's it.’”
While the National Association of School Resource Officers describes SROs as being “specially trained,” the documentary claims that only four hours of training are spent on handling kids during police academy. In South Carolina, SROs operate under the blanket law of “disturbing schools,” where teens and children can be arrested and criminally charged for not complying with teachers or school officials, contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline. The same year Shakara was thrown to the ground by Fields, 300,000 students were arrested or referred to law enforcement in school.
Zevgetis also raises the point that many SROs don’t actually volunteer to be put in schools but are rather assigned there. “Most cops do not join the [police] academy so they could go patrol the hallways of one middle school for years.”
Anderson agrees, saying that in past research she found that SROs she spoke to were often disgruntled because not only did some of the kids in schools not respect them, but they were also viewed by their police colleagues as a joke, or a type of mall cop, by working in schools.
What happened to Shakara is not a one-off situation. An 11-year-old boy was picked up and slammed into the ground twice by an SRO in North Carolina. When an 11-year-old Black girl brushed by a teacher at a New Mexico middle school, an SRO shoved her into a wall before pushing her to the ground. And in January, an SRO dropped a Black teen so hard on the concrete that she lost consciousness in Florida.
Anderson is currently in Florida working with that teen’s family, as well as another Black high school student in the Sunshine State who was tased by an SRO officer on that same day.
The documentary drives home the clear concern of having SROs around children, especially when they are not properly trained and their actions disproportionately affect Black students. As Anderson says earlier in the film, while explaining how her two-day trip turned into a five-year-long mission, the “work ain’t done.”