Knightdale, N.C. — It was just a dumb fight. Two boys, both juniors, stood in the hallway discussing a classic teenage hypothetical: whether one of them could win in a fight against another student. But when one of the teens, Scott, said he didn’t think his friend could win, things turned personal.
They flung curse words back and forth that Thursday morning in March, lurching through the hallway of Knightdale High School, slamming into a row of lockers and tripping over a trashcan. A video shot by another student shows a teacher breaking up the fight after a few seconds, and both teens ending up on the ground, hurt only in pride.
One student was ushered away. But 17-year-old Scott, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, didn’t have a chance to get up. A school police officer rushed over, and pinned one of Scott’s arms behind his back. The student stopped filming the fight at this point. Scott says the police officer then sat on him and ordered him to place his other hand behind his back. He tried to comply, he says, but the officer was holding him down.
Seconds later, Scott felt a piercing electric jolt in his right shoulder that sent convulsions running through the rest of his body. The officer Tasered Scott once, according to Lawrence Capps, the chief of police in Knightdale who supervises police in the high school. The five-second zap sent thousands of volts through Scott’s body.
“I was going to get back up after the fight,” Scott recalled of the moment that defined his junior year.
Months later, on a hot July day in this small town in North Carolina, Scott was watching the news with his mother, Stephanie Grice. Three days earlier, Alton Sterling had been fatally shot by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Two days earlier, police in Minnesota had shot and killed Philando Castile. The night before, five police officers had been gunned down in Dallas. Like the rest of the nation, Scott and Grice couldn’t turn away.
Grice, who works as a patient account representative at a nearby medical center, said she can’t help but wonder if her son’s harsh punishment was influenced by the color of his skin. Both students involved in the fight were black; the school police officer, named Pete Smith, was white.
“Every day I pray for my son out here in this world. Even when he goes to school, I’m afraid,” said Grice, 45, who enrolled her son in night school after the incident out of fear for his safety. “He’s watching these African-American men just die like we’re pieces of meat.”
In the moments after he was struck by the Taser, Scott’s legs bounced up and down uncontrollably on his 6-foot-3, 260-pound frame. After getting up, he couldn’t stop shaking from the pulsing waves of electricity, he said.
Later that day he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting an officer. He had never been in trouble with the police before.
This is one of at least 87 incidents of children being Tasered or shot with a stun gun by a school police officer since September 2011, according to media reports tracked by The Huffington Post. The number is a gross underestimation because not every incident is reported, and no state or federal organization track how often children are zapped at schools. The children, who were all hit by a Taser or stun gun by school-based police officers, also called school resource officers, were 12 to 19 years old when the incidents occurred.
They were shocked by a Taser or stun gun for mouthing off to a police officer. For trying to run from the principal’s office. For, at the age of 12, getting into a fight with another girl.
“I didn’t even know they allow police officers to do those things to children,” Grice said. “When I was growing up, we had school fights. We got suspended or what have you. That was then. It was never no Tasering or handcuffs or fingerprinting.”
It can be medically risky to stun a child with an electrical weapon, especially if that child isn’t fully grown. The jolts of electricity puts them at greater risk for cardiac arrest, said Dr. Zian Tseng, a cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of California in San Francisco who has studied the impact of Tasers.
“It is a potentially lethal weapon, and it should be treated as such,” Tseng said.
Being Tasered by a school resource officer can also traumatize a child psychologically. Such an incident can make it harder for children to trust authority figures, according to Linda Fleming McGhee, a clinical psychologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland, who specializes in treating children who have experienced trauma.
“It might make a child believe that they are a ‘bad person,’” she said, because the people who get Tasered by the police, at least in a child’s eyes, are typically people who are not good people. Seeing themselves this way can lower their self-esteem and self-confidence.
Taser International recommends that officers avoid stunning children. Using a Taser on a child “could increase the risk of death or serious injury,” according to an instruction manual for the tool.
The company does not have an exact count of how many Tasers are carried by school resource officers “because you’re talking thousands, and at some point you can’t even keep track of it,” said Steven Tuttle, the vice president of strategic communications. He added that he does not know of any other companies that provide stun guns to police departments.
We do know, however, that the number of Tasers in schools has risen in the past decade. According to a Huffington Post analysis of Department of Education statistics, 17 percent of public schools equipped their security personnel with Tasers or stun guns in 2010, up from 13 percent in 2006. (The federal government cut funding to this survey after 2010. It recently reversed that decision, but results for 2016 are not yet available.)
Statistics from the Department of Public Safety in North Carolina, where Scott lives, show that the number of school resource officers carrying Tasers in the state grew to 392 in 2009 from 184 in 2007. (The department stopped conducting regular surveys after 2009.)
The number of police officers in schools has ballooned amid high-profile incidents of school violence — like the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 — and new tough-on-crime, zero-tolerance policies. In 1997 only 10 percent of public schools had police officers; in 2014, 30 percent did.
It’s a natural instinct to want to protect children. Indeed, the Obama administration funded a program to hire up to 1,000 school resource officers and counselors a year after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
But the consequence of having more police in schools is only now being fully realized: More children who engage in adolescent misbehavior are being hit with arrest records and the possibility of being struck by dangerous electroshocks.
This issue disproportionately affects black students, who are arrested at significantly greater rates than their white counterparts. Black students are also suspended more than white students, even for the same offenses, according to the Equity Project at Indiana University. The pattern perpetuates a trend called the school-to-prison pipeline, in which children are funneled from school into the criminal justice system.
Both students involved in the fight at Knightdale High were suspended from school for five days — which Scott and his mother say was appropriate. But because Smith charged Scott with disorderly conduct and resisting an officer, the student’s punishment was much longer than the length of his suspension.
North Carolina is one of two states that automatically charges all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, regardless of the crime. Scott was relatively fortunate; the district attorney ultimately dismissed his charges and referred him to a local court program to get his arrest record expunged.
Scott has to complete a six-month program that includes counseling and 20 hours of community service — punishment, essentially, for “acting like a teenager,” said Jennifer Story, an education justice lawyer for Legal Aid of North Carolina who is advising Scott’s family.
Scott’s mugshot will remain online, even after he completes the program. His mother understands the potential repercussions of this.
“He’s looking at colleges he wants to attend,” Grice said. His mugshot is “going to be there forever.”
But Are Kids Safer?
Having more cops in schools is supposed to prevent on-campus crime and keep students safe from shootings and other violence. In fact, there have been a handful of instances in which a school resource officer has successfully obstructed armed intruders.
Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association for School Resource Officers, an organization that provides training for officers working in schools, said he believes school resource officers can also help students establish trusting relationships with the police — a foundation that can help build goodwill between young people and law enforcement.
“What we’re doing in schools should hopefully transition out into the community,” Canady said.
Tuttle, the Taser International spokesman, said the weapon is only meant to be used in certain serious situations, like when a crime is being committed. School police officers carry them so they can be prepared for dangerous situations on campuses.
“[Officers are] there to protect students in case fights break out, perpetrators come on campus, and what have you,” Tuttle said. “God love these officers for being there to protect my kids.”
But there is little evidence to indicate that school resource officers are actually making schools safer, according to Jason Langberg, a lawyer who previously worked for the Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia and specializes in school policing.
Positive relationships between students and staff — not police presence — is a strong predictor of school safety, according to University of Florida professor Jason Nance, whose research focuses on the impact of police in schools. He cited studies, such as a Department of Education analysis conducted after the Columbine massacre, that found a tightknit community can help make schools safer.
There is a dearth of research on the overall impact of police on school crime and culture, he added.
Scott and Grice say they feel devastated by what happened, and Grice feared her son might get in more trouble — or worse, hurt — if he stayed in school. After finishing his junior year in night school, Scott will return to Knightdale as a full-time student this month.
Grice’s fears are well-founded. Since 2014, the police officers in Scott’s school district have been required to get special training before working with children. This requirement came after Legal Aid of North Carolina and other civil rights organizations filed a complaint against the school system with the U.S. Department of Justice. The complaint, which has not been investigated, alleges that African-American students in the district are disproportionately subjected to harassment and unreasonable force at the hands of school-based police officers. It further notes that school resource officers used Tasers against students at least eight times between 2005 and 2014. In one incident, the device’s prongs punctured the lungs of a 15-year-old.
Since the complaint was filed, the district has developed a number of initiatives designed to address these issues, including one to monitor for potential racial disparities in school arrest data, a district spokeswoman noted.
Capps, the chief of police for Knightdale, said his department conducted a mandatory internal inquiry of what happened in the high school hallway that March morning. The investigation determined that Smith had acted within the normal parameters of his job. The officer, according to the findings, had stunned Scott “to gain compliance” after the student resisted him.
The family says it had minimal interaction with police officers before moving to North Carolina from New York City in October. Grice said she thought living in a suburban community could provide Scott with a better life and more athletic opportunities. Now she’s questioning her decision, and says moving has brought Scott into the “lion’s den.”
Scott is aware of the impact his race and size has on the way people — particularly authority figures like law enforcement officers — perceive him. He is big. He is dark-skinned.
“They look at us like we don’t know how to control ourselves and we just get angry quick,” he said. “It’s not even like that. They criminalize us for no reason.”
Scott’s instincts aren’t far from the truth. Black boys aren’t always given the luxury of being seen as children. A 2014 study found that people tend to overestimate the ages of black children and perceive them as less innocent than white kids. Police officers who participated in the study were more likely to miscategorize black 13-year-olds as adults than white children.
The Knightdale police district is aware of the problem, and Capps said officers receive training on preventing “biased-based policing.”
Still, he said officers should respond to perceived physical threats as they see fit.
“While we respect the fact that students are developing adolescents and they don’t necessarily process information the way adults do, many of them are adults in terms of physical size and physical capability. Those are things officers have to take into consideration,” Capps said.
Nance, the professor who researches school policing, believes Tasers could be used on campuses sometimes, but only in very extreme circumstances, like if someone’s safety is in danger.
“Perhaps it might be justified on the very rare occasion,” he said, adding that schools need to address harsh discipline practices. Some students have described school as being a “prison-like environment,” Nance said.
Indeed, what happened to Scott represents a larger trend of police intervention in conflicts that may have previously been dealt with by teachers.
Media reports show this playing out: An October 2015 cellphone video from a Spring Valley High School classroom in Columbia, South Carolina, captures a school resource officer hurling a black female student to the ground while she was still seated at her desk. A March 2016 video taken in a Baltimore school shows a school resource officer hitting and kicking a black student. An April video depicts a school resource officer in San Antonio body-slamming a 12-year-old student to the ground.
As he prepares to return to Knightdale High, Scott said he is focused on making sure he has a good senior year. He plans on making his summer job at a sports park into a weekend job. He has been going to football practice and finishing up the community service hours he needs to get his arrest record expunged. Still, he and his mother are nervous. Scott has little room for error.
“I realized where I want to go in life,” Scott said. “I don’t want to go to jail. I don’t want to have a record. I want to stay on a clean slate, play sports, get a job. Make my mom proud.” He wants to play basketball for a school like Shaw University, and maybe even play professionally someday.
But Grice says she has already seen a change in her son. The teenager she describes as a “gentle giant” already seems less emotionally open.
“I think some of Scott’s experiences made him hard,” she said. “I noticed that with him. I’m like, ‘your heart is not as soft as it used to be.’ And he says he’s just tired of being treated a certain way.”
This article was updated on Oct. 7 to reflect incidents of school police officers using Tasers on students since the initial publication date.