Should School District Cops Be Allowed to Choke Students?

Grabbing suspects by the throat or putting them in chokeholds are actions many police departments prohibit in most circumstances. Some departments outright ban the practice, and after the public saw video last summer of a New York police officer choking Eric Garner to death, police chokeholds became clouded in even more controversy. (The Houston Police Department evidently does not make its policy available to the public.)

So it’s unclear why a school district police officer at Round Rock High School last week felt it necessary or appropriate to grab a student by the throat before pinning him to the ground. The backlash Round Rock ISD has received over the video, which began circulating on social media last week and achieved viral status over the weekend, is just the latest in an ongoing debate over how and when school police should be allowed to use force on students.

Round Rock sophomore Gyasi Hughes told KVUE that a fight started when another student wouldn’t give him back his football goggles. Hughes told the station that school officials called in police (or, to go by the district’s euphemism, “school resource officers”) to defuse the situation once Hughes and the other student started pushing and shoving each other.

While the video, which appears to have been shot by a fellow student, doesn’t show the fight between Hughes and the other student, it does show Hughes being cornered by two officers after the altercation. When officer Rigo Valles goes to grab Hughes’s arm, the 14-year-old pushes his hand away. That’s when Valles grabs Hughes by the throat.

State lawmakers have for some time acknowledged that the way Texas public school districts police students has become a problem. That’s why in 2011, the Legislature banned school police officers from charging students with Class C misdemeanors for routine behavior problems, like disrupting class. Up until this year, Texas was one of only two states in the country to criminalize truancy. Texas students now no longer face fines, arrest and even jail time for skipping school. This week, the Houston ISD Board of Trustees is set to vote on a measure that would ban schools from suspending or expelling the district's youngest students

All of these reforms are meant to address what critics have called the school-to-prison pipeline, a system that researchers say criminalizes children from an early age and too often dumps them into a criminal justice system that many find difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

Part of the conversation on how to end the school-to-prison pipeline has been focused on reforming how and when school police officers use force on students. Critics of the way districts currently police students point to a number of recent incidents that they say illustrate dangerous and unnecessary use of force on kids.

In 2013, an officer tased Bastrop high school student Noe Niño de Rivera while breaking up a fight in the school cafeteria. The 16-year-old fell backward, hit his head and subsequently spent more than 50 days in a medically induced coma. (The state’s largest police association defended the officer’s actions and officials settled a lawsuit filed by the student’s family for $775,000.)

Last year, 16-year-old South Houston High School student Cesar Suquet went to the principal’s office to ask for his cell phone, which had been confiscated earlier in the day. Officials denied his request and told him to leave the office. Suquet later told KPRC that, as Pasadena ISD police officer Michael Y’Barbo and an assistant principal escorted him out, he looked at the cop and “asked him why he was being such an asshole.”

According to Suquet, Y’Baro became enraged and attempted to arrest him for disorderly conduct. When Suquet wouldn’t get on the ground, the officer struck him on the arms and back with his metal baton hard enough to leave large patches of red bruising. In a lawsuit the family later filed against the district, Suquet claims he was hit some 18 times by Y’Baro’s baton. Some of the blows came after he was already on the ground, according to the lawsuit.

And just this past April, an officer at Round Rock ISD used a Taser to subdue a 16-year-old during a fight in the high school cafeteria; police later acknowledged the kid was actually trying to stop the fight.

Hughes, the 14-year-old who was choked by an officer at Round Rock ISD last week, was ultimately suspended from school, given Saturday detention and was banned from playing on the football team for one game. The question many are asking, however, isn’t really whether all of that is appropriate punishment for what by all accounts appears to have been a mild schoolyard fight, but rather whether the officer’s response — grabbing a student by the throat — was appropriate.

While Round Rock ISD officials say they’re reviewing the incident, the district issued a statement last week that blamed the student for being non-compliant and said police “were forced to detain him for his safety and the safety of others.”

The statement doesn’t address when, if ever, it is appropriate for a school police officer to grab a 14-year-old by the throat. 

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