A Cop Shoots a 16-Year-Old In His Classroom
Taser Brutality in Our Schools
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, February 7, 2007
Barbarism with a Taser's face: the M26 model used against the 16-year-old student at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Florida
I’m not going to mention his name, even though it’s been all over the media. His rights have been violated enough. So has his person, physically, violently, by the high school he attends, by the sheriff’s deputy called to subdue him, and subsequently by the sheriff himself and the school district, who alternately rationalized, justified, excused and in some measures applauded what they should have condemned outright as a barbaric act: The willful electrocution by Taser of a 16-year-old boy, a special education student with emotional or behavioral problems, in his classroom, for refusing to do his work. They’ll tell you that he hit a deputy. He did. But only in reaction to the deputy’s attempt to wrestle the boy off his seat and forcibly remove him from his classroom, simply because the student refused to follow directions. The whole thing unfolded in a matter of minutes, not hours: the school wanted to keep its schedule. By morning’s end a 16-year-old had been booked at the county jail on a felony charge, then shipped off to a juvenile “detention” facility one county over. And the deputy typed “case closed” at the end of his incident report. This is the country we’re living in, the police agencies we have to live with, and the school systems that enable them. This is the county I’m living in: this happened in my school district, in Flagler County, last Thursday, at Flagler Palm Coast High School, the school where my daughter would be attending in a couple of years, although I hear the former sheriff, speaking to the school board today, told the five men and women that “if this board doesn’t take a stand you’ll never get a chance to educate my 10-year-old child.” Our daughter is being home-schooled in preparation for ninth grade there. But those words sound right to me.
This, then, is what happened, based on what school district personnel said, what the sheriff said, and what the sheriff’s incident report says. The student was in Robert Ripley’s classroom. He was refusing to complete an assignment. He was being “disruptive.” He was not being violent: he was not physically hurting anyone or anything. He was acting out. Nothing extraordinary there, in the sense that disruptions like that occur, even with “regular” students, and are expected to occur with special ed students. Paul Peacock, a vice-principal, and another individual whose name was misspelled on the incident report were in Robert Ripley’s classroom when the “school resource deputy,” Scott Vedder, arrived. (For those of you reading this in more civilized places, like New Jersey, cops are routinely assigned to permanent security detail in schools here, even in elementary schools, and euphemistically referred to as “school resource officers” or “school resource deputies.” An uncle of mine from Princeton, N.J., who happened to be visiting here the evening after the incident at the high school, was describing to me a school in Jersey that was testing the law by attempting to forbid cops from entering school grounds even if going after a student suspect; the school was arguing that a school should be a sanctuary. Interesting idea. Heretical, in a semi-police state like Florida . Likely laughable, in a county like mine.)
Let Vedder’s account in his incident report pick up the story at this point; the timeline picks up just before Vedder arrives, based on what the adults in the room told Vedder:
When [the student] was approached by his teacher R. Ripley, he became very belligerent and refused to participate. [The student] advised R. Ripley that he was not going to do the assignment and pushed all of his books onto the floor and threw his pencil across the room. At that time R. Ripley asked [the student] to leave the room with him. [The student] refused and said “fuck you.” At that time Mr. Peacock walked into the class room [sic.]. Upon Mr. Peacock being advised of the situation he had the other students relocate to the class room next door and asked for my assistance via school radio. While I was responding to the class room Mark Montieth arrived and he and Mr. Peacock continued to coax [the student] to leave the class room. [The student] refused to get out of his chair and go to the dean’s office. I then attempted to talk with [the student]. I attempted to talk [the student] into leaving the class room peacefully. I advised him that we needed to go to Mr. Peacock’s office and talk before the situation gets worse than it needs to be.
The emphasis is mine: not only has the deputy already escalated the situation by his presence; he is dropping threats of how much further the situation will escalate. There’s pre-meditation in crime. There’s also such a thing as pre-meditated provocation, a police skill. You see it in action here: the student wasn’t worsening the situation with his obstinacy. The deputy was worsening it by forcing the issue. He had the student psychologically cornered and surrounded. Now he was moving in, making the situation worse than it needed to be. The incident report again:
[The student] then advised that he was not getting up and nobody was going to get him out of the chair or the class room, Because [sic.] he did not want to go. I then advised [the student] that he did not havwe a choice in the matter, because he was under arrest for disruption of a school function.
The emphasis is again mine. There’s a new one on me. You can get arrested for not doing your work. For not following a teacher’s directions. For not going to “the office.” It’s a wonder I didn’t spend my entire elementary and middle school career in prison. Then again I was attending school in a more civilized place than this (by which I mean, of course, Lebanon, where Jesuits had a more effective weapon than Tasers and guns put together. It’s called persuasion and patience, a deadly combination if you’re an obstinate student like me. Jesuits generally had intelligence on their side, too.) What Deputy Scott Vedder promised, he fulfilled. It got worse:
At that time I attempted to physically remove him from the desk with an escort technique of the right arm. [The student] immediately pulled his arm away and tensed up the muscles in his upper body resisting my attempt to remove him from the chair. I advised him that if he did not comply I would deploy my Taser.
An extremely important detail here: the deputy made his first threat of using the Taser before the student had acted violently. The school board and I suspect the majority of the public would—because of the way the sheriff’s office conveyed the story—subsequently be under the impression that the Taser was used because the student struck the deputy. Not so. The deputy was ready to use the Taser whether or not the student was going to lift a hand to him, and makes that clear in the record.
He again pulled his arm away from me, looked directly at me and pulled his drew his [sic.] left hand back. [The student] then struck me in the left check with the palm of his left hand as I attempted to move out of his reach.
At the school board meeting on Tuesday, the deputy’s supervisor, Zane Kelly, exaggerated the situation just as he had exaggerated it when describing it to the press by saying that the student “struck my deputy with a closed fist.” The incident report is clear: the deputy was struck “with the palm of [the student’s] left hand.” So it goes: not only do the authorities — school and police — needlessly escalate a situation, but the perceived gravity of the incident is needlessly escalated as it is subsequently described, and in a way that unequivocally demarcates victim from officer: the victim is a demon out of control; the officer is a hero who had no choice, and followed all protocols. They call these here, proudly, “the matrix of force.” Here it is in action:
At that time I disengaged from [the student] and drew my M26 Taser emitting the laser aiming function onto his chest and advised him several times to get down on the ground or I would deploy the Taser [sic.] [The student] refused to comply so I then deployed the Taser by pulling the trigger one time for a five second cycle. [That’s 50,000 volts for five seconds, pronged into the student’s skin.] [The student] then rolled off of the chair onto the ground. [The student] then complied with all of my commands and I was able to secure him without further incident.
If irony could speak. A important bit of history: Two years ago when the new sheriff was elected (Don Fleming who, incidentally, had been a police chief in a New Jersey Meadowlands town much like the one portrayed in “Copland”) he immediately talked about arming his school cops with Tasers. The school board discussed it and rejected the idea. The sheriff said he’d comply. He was even quoted to that effect in the papers. Obviously, he didn’t. The school board met on Tuesday. The sense before the meeting was that a clear policy would be drawn up banning Tasers from schools. Not so fast. The board prevaricated. The board attorney advised against a policy, otherwise the school board would be liable should a student be hurt in an incident where, say, a gun was used where a Taser might have done better. So goes the twisted logic of agencies more fearful of lawsuits than protective of their students. No one seemingly condemned the use of the Taser outright. No one seemed, as they should have been, outraged. Doubt was getting more than its benefit. It was sprinkling the whitewash. So the best they could settle on was a workshop to discuss the matter further. Zane Kelly, the school cops’ supervisor, even used the word “proud” when describing his deputy’s reaction after the deputy was allegedly “struck.” Because, Kelly said, the deputy backed up, composed himself, and ordered the student to comply.
Then he fired.
And we wonder why we’re living in such violent times. And we wonder why, when stories like this make it into the press, the reaction by the general public is revoltingly approving of the use of force under those false rationales that even the local superintendent and cops are quick to use: better a Taser than a gun. As if those were the only two options. As if we have become so barbaric in our algorithms of law and order that the only two variables in the formula have to be force and order. And all this because a 16-year-old boy, a special education student, was acting out. It reminds me of another recent incident in the Daytona Beach area a couple of weeks back that began with a speeding car, was followed by a high-speed chase, and ended with thirty cops’ bullets fired at the car. The two occupants somehow survived, though they were wounded. And the cops didn’t even know if the person on the passenger side was a kidnapping victim or worse. But they fired. What triggered the folly it in the student’s case, and who’s at fault for letting the student escalate to the point where a cop was in the classroom instead of a trained counselor, a conflict-resolution specialist, even a couple of medics for that matter? (The medics turned up later, post-zapping.)
The Palm Coast high school student is 275 pounds and 6 or 6-1. His size is used repeatedly as further justification that he could have been trouble. The more reason to invoke conflict-resolution techniques. His size, his age, his status as a special education student are all irrelevant in the end: Tasering a student in his school, in his classroom, a student who was causing no worse harm than upsetting, loudly and maybe aggravatingly, a day’s routine, is a greater crime than anything the student could have been doing.
A couple of other details about the incident. The student is black. To my knowledge, every individual involved in his disciplining and cornering was white, even though the school has a black dean and a black assistant principal. Maybe color is irrelevant in this case. Maybe it isn’t. It certainly shouldn’t be ignored. Neither should this: The student’s father died a violent death some years ago. And Tuesday, while the school board discussed his case in a cakewalk of prevarications, the student turned 17. Happy birthday. Oh, and this week is “Disability Awareness Week” at Flagler Palm Coast High School, “in order to create more compassion for those with disabilities.” Great job.