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Using a cellphone in class may be wrong, but since when is it criminal?

Firing Richland County Deputy Ben Fields for throwing a high school student across a South Carolina classroom was a good place to start. Now the teacher and assistant principal who called for his help should get a talking to as well.

Witnesses claim the 16-year-old Spring Valley High student was on her cellphone in class, which happens every school day in most every school in America. How that escalated into a situation in which the girl was repeatedly told to leave the room, flipped onto her back and forcibly removed when she refused, and then charged criminally with "disturbing schools" is something educators across the country should consider before bringing an officer into the classroom.

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As soon as Deputy Fields walked through that door, the girl went from being a student to a suspect, and the option of force was legally on the table — along with arrest, humiliation and a criminal record. And in this case, over what? All the facts aren't yet in, but the many, many stories prompted by the viral videos of the event suggest that the girl was mouthy, though neither a danger to herself nor others — and she was seated. She raised a hand only after the officer grabbed her. If being obnoxious in school counts as criminal behavior, most of us should have been locked up in our youth.

The South Carolina scenario, as reported, feels as if the educators were responding with a sort of street code mentality in which they couldn't let a kid show them up, rather than with reasoned, professional judgment about what the situation warranted. After the fact, both the teacher and the school administrator involved "voiced support for [Deputy Fields] and his actions," according to the county sheriff's department. And even the sheriff himself wasn't necessarily concerned with the use of force in the incident but rather the level of it — particularly that the student was tossed after the take down. "I do not feel that was proper and follows our policy and procedures," Sheriff Leon Lott said in a statement released on Facebook Wednesday.

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But he was also careful to add that the student started it and that bad behavior that interrupts the educational environment will not be tolerated. "When classrooms are disrupted by a student, then the teacher cannot perform his/her job and other students cannot learn," he said, concluding that the event "should be used as a learning opportunity for us all to move forward in a positive way."

I agree, but the lesson should not be on the appropriate use of force in the classroom to create the right "educational environment" — it should be on the appropriate use of police. In Baltimore, we know well that there is a need for officers in our schools at certain times. Just last month, a Frederick Douglass football player was charged with attempted murder after a video showed him beating a teammate to a pulp in the school cafeteria. And last year, The Sun published an investigative report detailing violence against city teachers that included outright assault.

But we also know that police can overreact and unnecessarily introduce aggression into a situation. Baltimore school police officer Lakisha Pulley was convicted last month of three counts of second-degree assault for attacking three girls inside Vanguard Collegiate Middle School. That incident was also recorded, leading criminal charges against the girls — who were initially arrested and expelled from school — to be dropped.

Educators have a difficult job, no doubt, and they deserve our grateful praise for their dedication to our children. But more of them have to rise to the challenge of the tough task they took on by keeping the best interests of all their students in mind, even the so-called troublemakers. Too many teachers are quick to remove kids labeled as such — disproportionately low income, black and/or disabled students — from the classroom for relatively minor infractions. Such suspensions and expulsions are key contributors in the well documented school-to-prison pipeline; turning directly to the police for simple discipline just speeds up the process.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released guiding principles for educators that said students should be removed from the classroom "only as a last resort" and schools should "also ensure that school-based law enforcement officers do not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters."

Still, nationwide, tens of thousands of students are referred to law enforcement and later arrested for offenses, including everything from fighting in Baltimore to the alleged theft of chicken nuggets in Wisconsin and that now-famous homemade clock in Texas.

This school year, Baltimore reduced the number of schools with assigned officers to seven from 75, and gave them positions patrolling the community and grounds, rather than spots inside schools. It's a move that's likely to make educators think twice before calling in officers, and maybe it should be the model. In some of these cases, it's not just the learning environment of one class on one day at stake, but a child's future.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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