A five-minute video uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday shows a Detroit school cop manhandling an unarmed student this past winter, the latest in a series of disturbing episodes set in one of the few places where America’s children are supposed to be safe from violence.
The security camera footage, which begins at 8:25 AM on December 9, 2015, shows Cass Technical High School tenth-grader Destiny Heard being pushed, kicked, and dragged by Detroit Public Schools Public Safety Officer Charles Braziel as two security officers contracted by the district police department look on. While it is difficult to see the student the whole time—she is blocked by the three officers for a portion of the tape—the 15-year-old tells VICE that at one point during the video, when she is seen crouched on the floor, she was pepper-sprayed by Officer Braziel.
The video ends with one of the security guards carrying her down the hall as she twists and turns her body wildly.[embedded content]
“I truly did not expect anything like this to happen when I went to school,” says Heard, who was apparently suspended for a month after the incident for allegedly kicking Braziel. “I’ve read about police brutality and read about it happening at other schools, but you don’t think, Oh I am going to school, and this is what’s going to happen to me. I was absolutely hysterical and surprised, I didn’t understand what I did.”
According to the sophomore student, the incident began after she arrived to school late and decided to use the elevator to get to her class on the sixth floor. Inside, a teacher asked to see her elevator pass, and when she produced an expired slip, Heard says she was told to get out. When she lingered by the elevator, the teacher accused her of trying to get back on and called a security officer. After a brusque exchange where Heard was asked to produce her identification, she says she headed to the second floor, where she was greeted by another security officer and then Orlando Bogins, the school’s dean of students.
At this point, Heard says that Bogins—who had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication—began yelling at her for being insubordinate. She says she asked him not to shout at her in the hall, and when he continued to yell, she put her earbuds back on to ignore him. As Bogins continued to reprimand her, Heard says Officer Braziel came over and told her to give him her phone connected to the headphones. She refused, she says, at which point the officer apparently seized it from her, and in the process pushed her to the ground.
Around this point in time, the student claims, Bogins walked away, leaving her alone with the school cop. She says the officer told her to get up, and when she said no, instead asking for medical attention, he grabbed her. Seconds later, the incident on camera began, according to the teen.
How a back-and-forth over an elevator ride and relatively mild insubordination could end with a child being pepper-sprayed and then suspended for 30 days is perplexing. Especially when you consider that the first campus cop program in America was launched in nearby Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s, with an eye toward building relationships between law enforcement and youth.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the situation Heard found herself in may be due at least in part to a dramatic shift in campus police programs that began in the 1990s. That’s when the concept of “juvenile super-predators” and “teenage time bombs” dominated the daily news cycles. This mass hysteria over violent teens reached its apex in 1999 with the Columbine High massacre in Colorado; around that time, the Justice Department’s COPS in Schools grant program pumping out millions of federal dollars to support campus police officers. Michigan received $18,778,285 during that time period, adding 152 new police officers into schools with that money. A 2013 report from CRS found that while there were only 12,000 campus cops nationwide in 1997, by 2003 that number had grown to nearly 20,000.
With more police, and more money supporting said police, came a shift in their role on campus. According to the same CRS report, about one-quarter of modern campus cop programs were created in large part because of media-incited fears, and another 25 percent were intended to deal with vandalism and rowdiness.
In effect, this means police are not only on hand to stop violence (only 4 percent of campus police programs were started for violence issues, according to the CRS report) but also to handle daily skirmishes and insubordination issues—problems that might previously have been handled by a teacher or administrator.
In Michigan, this trend toward more punitive measures is documented in a 1996 report by the state’s Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, which notes how the year prior, the state legislature was pushing for more “metal detectors and police officers as the primary focus for preventing disciplinary problems.” Fast-forward 20 years, and Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has 78 police officers patrolling its schools and surrounding areas (43 officers designated specifically for the district’s 25 high schools); in fact, DPS, which has been under state control on and off since 1999, is the only district in Michigan with its very own full-service police agency.
This means incidents that previously might have resulted in a conversation with a principal or an after-school detention may now be more likely to get handled by law enforcement.
“Everybody from the teacher on did the wrong thing, nobody did the right thing,” adds Herd’s mother, Venus, who says she found her daughter, “clothes all wet, eyes all puffy,” when she arrived at the school later that morning.
Following the confrontation, which resulted in an ambulance taking Herd to the hospital, the school’s principal, Lisa Phillips, suspended the teen for 30 days, according to her mother. The schools said she had kicked Braziel, though the child denies doing so.
“I asked Principal Phillips to please investigate before suspending, but she said she was following protocol and recommend a suspension pending expulsion,” says the mother, who was disappointed with how the principal handled the incident. “I had so much admiration for Principal Phillips, and I never expected her to take the stand she took. I think she should have said this is not going to be tolerated, no student in my school will be treated this way, and he [Officer Brazietl] should have been out of the building.”
VICE reached out to Principal Phillips and DPS’s communications officer, who runs PR for the district’s police department as well, but had yet to hear back at the time of publication.
In mid-January, Herd was allowed back into school, but the spat wasn’t exactly over. Brazil pressed charges against the teen, resulting in more than one trip to the Lincoln Hall of Justice, Detroit’s family-juvenile court. While the judge presiding over the case ultimately dropped the charges, the incident has been more than traumatic, according to the mother and her child, who believe the school intended to keep the video and assault under wraps (the footage only saw the light of day because the judge subpoenaed it, according to Heard.)
“I am absolutely appalled by the situation,” says Herd, who has started seeing a therapist to deal with anxiety and depression. “None of it was justifiable.”
In March, several high school students were pepper-sprayed by Detroit campus police after a brawl broke out at Central Collegiate High School, a school within the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which contracts campus police officers from DPS’s department. And last October, video of a student at a school in South Carolina getting thrown across the floor went viral nationwide.
But for at least some teachers at Cass Tech, one of Detroit’s top-performing high schools, the new video is both unexpected and deeply unnerving.
“I don’t care what the girl did leading up to this, this is wrong, this is police brutality,” says Joel Berger, an English teacher at the school who found out about the incident on Thursday. “In class discussions, students sometimes broach the topic of police brutality, but it is truly shocking and heartbreaking to see an example of it hit so close to home.”
*Update 5/20: After this article was published, Michelle Zdrodowski, executive director of communications for Detroit Public Schools, issued the following statement to VICE:
“The Detroit Public Schools Police Department conducted a thorough investigation beginning on December 12, 2015 in response to a complaint filed surrounding the actions in the video. Judge [Steven] Rhodes has reviewed the video, documentation involved in this investigation and is satisfied that this matter was appropriately addressed by the Detroit Public Schools Police Department. Consistent with Judge Rhodes’ commitment to transparency, the District is releasing the report filed by the Detroit Public Schools Police Department regarding the incident in question. In adherence to the FERPA law, names of students have been redacted.
According to the DPS Police Department’s final report, it was deemed that the officer followed proper procedures as outlined in the Force Continuum Policy contained in the DPS Police Officer Manual. In addition, the report outlines that several witnesses were interviewed, statements were consistent and the conclusions were justified by the evidence.”
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