After viral video, Wake County reviewing school policing rules

Video shows police officer slamming female student to the ground

A video posted Jan. 3, 2017 on Twitter appears to show a police officer body slamming a female Rolesville High School student in the wake of a large fight at the school.
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A video posted Jan. 3, 2017 on Twitter appears to show a police officer body slamming a female Rolesville High School student in the wake of a large fight at the school.

Cellphone video of a Rolesville police officer slamming a high school student to the floor could lead to changes in the way law enforcement operates in the Wake County school system.

School administrators are reviewing the district’s agreement with local law enforcement agencies on school resource officers. The agreement, set to expire in June, says use of force by officers must be reasonable and not excessive, arbitrary or malicious.

“We’re looking at the memorandum of understanding in terms of the context of the incident and seeing if any actions need to be taken,” Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

A nine-second video posted on Twitter on Tuesday shows Officer Ruben De Los Santos lifting Jasmine Darwin into the air and dropping her to the floor before leading her away from a crowd of students at Rolesville High School.

De Los Santos was placed on paid administrative leave by the Rolesville Police Department until the investigation is complete.

The video has gained national attention, and some people are questioning whether the officer used more force than was necessary.

Darwin has a concussion and was in and out of consciousness after the incident, according to Freddy Rabner of Pittsburgh, the family’s attorney. He said Darwin had been trying to break up a fight between two other girls when she was “slammed on the ground like a rag doll.”

Rabner said Darwin has been to a hospital twice and has a follow-up appointment with her primary care physician as well as appointments with a neurological specialist and a concussion specialist.

“She is in a great deal of pain,” Rabner said Wednesday. “The pain is worse today. She was a mess today.”

A second video shows the fight that leads up to a Rolesville Police officer slamming a student to the floor. It is not clear if that student was involved in the initial fight.

The controversy comes three years after local activists filed a federal civil rights complaint charging that school resource officers in Wake County use excessive force and treat minority students unfairly.

Under the agreement between the school system and law enforcement agencies, school administrators have the primary responsibility for maintaining order in schools and responding to disciplinary matters. But it also says school resource officers may intervene to ensure the immediate safety of people in the school “in light of an actual or imminent threat to health or safety.”

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who has deputies at 20 schools, said he would wait to see what changes are suggested by school officials. He said he’d balk at changes that would instruct school resource officers not to get involved in breaking up fights.

“We can’t pick and choose,” Harrison said. “If there’s a fight in the street, we’re going to get in and break it up. If it’s a fight in a school, we’re going to break it up.”

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based consulting firm, said Wake should avoid making any knee-jerk changes until the investigation into the Rolesville High incident is complete.

For decades, the school system has contracted with law enforcement agencies to provide an armed officer at every high school and more recently most middle schools. School resource officers provide security, speak in classes and mentor students.

Under an agreement approved in 2014, officers are supposed to receive training in areas such as working with students with disabilities and special needs, cultural competency and nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline.

‘Court of public opinion’

Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into what happened at the high school. Police have provided few details about the incident other than to say De Los Santos was responding to a fight in the cafeteria.

In addition to the nine-second video, a second video has circulated on social media that shows a fight involving two other girls at the school shortly before the officer slammed the student to the ground.

De Los Santos was wearing a body camera, but police have cited the ongoing investigation as reason for not releasing any footage that may have been taken.

Rabner said De Los Santos walked Darwin back to class and that her mother, Desiree Harrison, was not notified. Harrison found out about the incident when she went to pick up her other daughter.

Rabner said the family wants to ensure that no other children are harmed. They also want to examine what the school should have done to prevent the incident.

“This (incident) should not have been possible,” Rabner said.

Trump, the school safety expert, said the wide circulation of the video means De Los Santos has already lost in the court of public opinion regardless of what the investigations find.

“While the individual incident may or may not be reasonable, that initial loss in the court of public opinion harms not only that officer but the profession of school-based policing in general,” Trump said.

Sheriff Harrison cautioned against making a snap judgment based on a short video clip. He said he won’t “be a Monday morning quarterback” to judge the officer’s actions as right or wrong.

“Please don’t make judgments until people see what really happened,” Harrison said. “They turned it over to the SBI to investigate. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that the SBI will make the right decision.”

Federal complaint

But Jennifer Story, an attorney for Advocates for Children’s Services, said there is no way Tuesday’s incident can be justified. She said such incidents happen far more often in schools than people realize.

Story’s group was among several that filed a 2014 federal civil rights complaint accusing the Wake school system and local law enforcement agencies of unfair school policing practices. Wake County is the largest school system in North Carolina and the 15th largest in the nation.

“What’s unfortunate is the video yesterday was shocking to watch but isn’t surprising to see based on what we’ve heard happening in schools,” Story said.

Story said the current agreement needs to be changed to make it more clear when officers can get involved. She said that some school resource officers know not to get involved in minor school fights while others intervene and escalate the situation.

“It’s not every student targeted and treated in this manner,” Story said. “It’s overwhelmingly students of color where we see the situations being escalated and criminalized.”

Pam Akpuda, whose daughter shot the nine-second video, said she wants to talk to Rolesville High School principal Dhedra Lassiter about what happened. In a message sent Tuesday to parents, Lassiter said she was “deeply concerned about what I saw in the video.”

“At the end of the day, we send these kids to school to learn,” Akpuda said. “When stuff like this is going on, that detracts from the learning process.”

Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston tells the Rolesville Board of Commissioners that Officer Ruben De Los Santos has been placed on paid administrative leave after video surfaced on Twitter showing him slamming a Rolesville High female student

Staff writer Sarah Nagem contributed.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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