ELHS’s Tasering Incident, Four Years On

*The following was written for and published in East Lansing High School’s newspaper, Portrait. If you would like to read my 2011 article on the incident, you can do so here.

As I sat in my college dorm room reading about another unarmed African-American killed by police, I made the obvious connection between the recent national attention devoted to police brutality against African-Americans and an event at East Lansing High School four years ago. I realized that almost every student who was at the school at the time is no longer there, top administrators in the school and district have moved on, and there is now a different resource officer at the high school. It is therefore likely that few people at the school remember what happened. So, I decided to revisit the incident, in the hope that it would remind the East Lansing High School community of what likely is its own sad relation to ongoing patterns of racism and discriminatory policing.

I can only speak about my own understanding of and involvement with the incident. In November 2010, I was a sophomore eating lunch when I heard that an African-American student had been tasered by the white resource officer outside the cafeteria. That day, the administration sent out an email saying “no one was hurt,” even though a student had just been tasered. After a month, having grown frustrated with what I perceived as the callous response of the administration and my white friends’ indifference to the event, I decided to write an opinion piece on the incident for Portrait.

I spent about a month researching the incident, interviewing as many relevant actors as I could, from members of the Black Parent Union to witnesses of the tasering to an expert on tasers. The police file confirmed that the student was not behaving violently when the resource officer decided to arrest him, and that the resource officer chose to use his taser even though three police officers were holding the student down. I found that the administration was conducting an investigation of the event while also trying to protect itself from a lawsuit. The tasered student and the two other students involved were suspended indefinitely, and the administration unsuccessfully recommended that the tasered student be expelled based on what struck me as a biased investigation. The superintendent told me he had not even been aware that resource officers in the school carried tasers prior to the incident. Despite the concern of the African-American community and the extensive efforts of the Black Parent Union, most people, including the administration, were baffled why this incident could be so concerning.

The article came out in January. I published it with somewhat self-aggrandizing expectations, but I know of only a handful of people who read it, and I do not know if it had any impact at all. While two of the three students involved returned to ELHS after months of suspension, the tasered student never did. I participated in a few further efforts to work towards racial justice at ELHS, and I now think about the incident only occasionally. I suspect the tasering has been almost entirely forgotten at ELHS.

I will never know whether racial bias led the resource officer involved to taser the student, just as we will never know for sure whether bias played a role in individual cases of police brutality gaining national attention. We do know that the litany of similar cases confirms the impact of racial bias in policing, and the tasering incident would fit neatly into this pattern. I would also guess that the fact that the administration was almost entirely white played a large part in why they were oblivious to the dismay of the African-American community. I think most of them, as I am sure I do, subconsciously held some racist views. I hope the importance of this case would now be clearer in the aftermath of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many more, and I wonder if the officer would be slightly more hesitant to use his taser now.

I think in light of the attention to police brutality nationwide, it is vital to remember that East Lansing is a part of oppressive systems. Before these trends were as widely publicized, East Lansing High School had a case of its own (but, thankfully, although the tasered student’s life may have been shattered in multiple ways, he did survive). The history of racism in the U.S. continues to manifest itself in the present day throughout the country in countless forms, including excessive use of police force. East Lansing is not immune from these evils; indeed, I think this is the main reason I found the tasering incident so disturbing. I genuinely believe that in terms of diversity, tolerance, and racial equality, East Lansing is one of the best places in the country, but it’s still so bad.

So, where do we go from here? I think the tasering incident could be a good place to start. Just as the national movement is focusing on exposing and addressing police brutality among countless other forms of racial injustice in the U.S., the issues raised in this case could serve as first steps.

Future resource officers can think, really think, about whether they would be more likely to use a taser against an African-American student. Administrators can think about whether they would put fear of a lawsuit over the right to an on-going education for one of their students, and white students can consider whether they would almost entirely ignore the incident. I can think about how I was able to write the article, fail to create change, and move on without suffering any consequences from continued racism. We can make sure that we are not paralyzed by either a fear of controversy or an unwillingness to accept that we may subconsciously hold racist views. We can all listen and learn from those who do suffer the consequences of racism, and, I hope, begin to make meaningful changes.

But we could have been doing all this four years ago. This is not to say no progress has been made, even if it has been ever so slight, and I think the current resource officer would have handled the situation better. Still, the question I just cannot get away from is if, instead of four years ago, the original resource officer was entering into the situation now, would a similarly terrible sequence of events unfold, from an unnecessary tasering to an irresponsible administrative response to an indifferent community? I hope not, but deep down, I think it probably would.

Zapping our Attention: Why the Tasering Incident Matters

*The following was published in January 2011 for East Lansing High School’s newspaper, Portrait.

When I saw a crowd form in the student union on November 4th, I didn’t expect that event to be of great importance.  I wouldn’t have guessed that a student would be tasered in our high school.  And I wouldn’t have predicted that our community, which is usually so wonderfully diverse, supportive and tolerant, could splinter so easily.

It is not completely clear what happened.  I understand that a high school administrator called for assistance from the school resource officer to lead a suspended female student off school grounds.  Two male students, who were brothers, came over and began arguing with the resource officer and the administrator.  The resource officer grabbed the arm of the female student and one of the male students did the same thing to the resource officer.  The officer then decided to arrest the students. In his report of the incident, the resource officer stated the male students became aggressive, though not yet violent, and the officer pulled out his taser and called for  back-up.  Other officers arrived quickly.  At least three officers held one male student down and attempted to handcuff him.  When they had difficulty doing so, the resource officer tasered the student twice in the chest and all three students were arrested.

It appears both the high school administration and the police made mistakes.  It is not clear the initial issue with the female student required the intervention of the resource officer and I don’t think the adults should have allowed the situation to escalate. If the reports that the female student was treated roughly are true, and it is hard to imagine how that was justified.  And it’s difficult to understand why three or more police officers could not subdue the student without resorting to a taser.  In fact, taser use carries significant risks. In May 2009, a15 year-old died after being tasered in Bay City, Michigan, and other taser-related deaths have been reported.  While the police obviously did not intend to seriously injure the student, I worry there could have been a real tragedy.

From the very beginning, the school district’s response was troubling.  On the day of the incident, the school issued an alert to parents stating “no one was hurt.”  The first thing many people heard about the incident was inaccurate.  A taser is extremely painful, and according to the student’s mother, the student suffered a burn on his chest, a possible hairline fracture in his arm, and now has trouble walking long distances. By all definitions, someone was hurt.

While school officials did not make the decision to taser the student, there are concerns about the events leading up to the incident and the district’s response.  First, we had an unclear policy regarding the role of our resource officer and no policy on tasers. In fact, Dr. Chapin told me he had been unaware resource officers had tasers in the schools. Second, after the incident, days went by before the administration began interviewing students. While Dr. Chapin told me Ms. Steele took notes during interviews with 8-10 students, the mother of the students involved said she understood Ms. Steele had interviewed just one of the students who witnessed the incident. A junior said she did not see Ms. Steele taking notes during her interview. In addition, students may not have been entirely forthcoming talking to their principal.  Similarly, cafeteria workers who were witnesses were interviewed by their boss, and may not have felt completely comfortable sharing information.

While I don’t believe the investigation was intended to be biased, it is hard for the high school administration to investigate an incident in which they were involved and  which they might fear could be the subject of a lawsuit. Had the investigation found the school officials culpable of wrongdoing, the school would have less defense against lawsuits.  There is clearly a conflict of interest.  While Dr. Chapin indicated that a third-party investigation is probable, by the time this investigation is conducted, the students will have missed at least two and a half months of school. If there is going to be an independent investigation, why couldn’t it have been done immediately?

At the tasered student’s disciplinary hearing, it shocked me that high school administration recommended one of their own students be expelled based upon an investigation that does not seem to be fair. Instead, the school board voted to suspend the student for the rest of the year. For a school district with a motto including the words “educating all students,” the administration seemed prepared to let a few slip between the cracks much too easily.

The thing that has shocked me the most is how many issues we still need to address even though our school district has consistently promoted and celebrated diversity.  Although  our school district took  a positive step toward racial equality by  creating the Achievement Gap Task Force, we have not yet achieved fairness and equality for all people. Our school board and high school administrative staff include no people of color. In the high school, we have no African American and just two Latino classroom teachers. For a school that is 20% African American, and 40% non-white, it is truly shocking that we have such low levels of diversity.

Even some of the kindest people in our community may be subconsciously biased against different races.

“There are historical and institutional dynamics that cause the targeting of persons of color for monitoring, discipline and arrest,” said Mark Fancher, the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project, “For example, persons of color appear to be disproportionately targeted for Taser use. This is likely not unique to Tasers, but is likely a reflection of a more general approach to law enforcement that focuses on communities of color because of a presumption that crime will occur there.”

I have heard people in our community express this same presumption, and we must work to eliminate these attitudes.

Dr. Chapin told me, “When people talk about race at a school board meeting, it is hard not to take these things personally. When I get out of bed in the morning, I think I am the furthest thing from a racist.”

I personally don’t believe I am racist either, but I cannot be certain I am not. We all need to relinquish our egos and accept we could be stereotyping people without realizing it.

We need to talk openly about difficult issues including race, gender, sexual orientation, and anything else, whether or not we agree with each other. From talking to a wide array of people about this incident, I have learned so much and my opinions have changed considerably. Trust has been lost in this incident, and problems have been found. We need to have constructive, honest conversations about how to go forward and what to change. Many things are so good in this community, but we need to ensure the entire East Lansing community enjoys the same benefits. We must not look past the problems in our community because they do not personally affect us. This issue involves all of us because as fellow students, community members, and human beings, we have an obligation to each other, and we have an obligation to do better.