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.

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