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Footage of Richmond School Arrest Draws Criticism

Man in profile
Richmond Public Schools student Mike, who says he was arrested over a lighter, while at school. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor’s Note: This story contains some graphic language.

School districts across the country, including in Richmond, are considering severing ties with local police departments amid nationwide protests over police conduct. 

That means police in Richmond Public Schools are under the microscope, as community and school board members try to understand what happened in the nearly 400 student arrests over the last two school years. 

During this debate, VPM obtained body camera footage of a 2018 arrest at Richmond’s Armstrong High School that the then 16-year-old student and other experts say was unwarranted. 

The police officer’s body camera footage shows a school security officer walking into the hallway to call for back-up to confiscate a lighter from 16-year-old sophomore Mike in the school cafeteria. VPM is not using his last name to protect his identity.

Composite video of body cam footage from Mike's arrest.

The police officer and a second school security officer are seen in the video approaching Mike, and yelling at him that a lighter isn’t allowed at school. Mike appears to panic, and jumps across a lunch table, trying to run away. An officer catches his foot mid-jump, and he manages to land on two feet. Then, two officers grab him and put him in handcuffs. Mike is pushed face down into a lunch table, and then onto the floor.

“I really wanted to get him out of that school, I no longer trusted them,” said Mike’s mom, Diana. She came to the school after the incident, and asked to see body camera footage, but was denied. She says Mike was transported to the hospital in a police car, and remained in handcuffs until after the doctor examined him.

“I said why did it take four of y'all? I guess it was a sergeant, he said, ‘I've seen grown men hurt officers,’” Diana said. “I said, ‘Well this is a child.’”

The police report says Mike was arrested and criminally charged for “jumping on cafeteria lunch tables and disrupting the normal flow of the school.” The official charge was disorderly conduct; Virginia lawmakers recently outlawed this charge for minors in school. 

Mike’s case was just one of about 250 arrests in RPS that school year. Around 30 arrests that year were for disorderly conduct.

After the arrest, Mike had to go to court. The judge gave him a deal: Stay out of trouble for a year, and we’ll dismiss the charges. So over the next year, Diana had to take Mike to Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center for periodic check-ins, and someone came to their home as well to make sure Mike was on track. The process is similar to probation. 

Mike’s charges were finally dropped this past January, 14 months after his arrest. Mike says the whole experience was traumatic and made him not want to go to school. He stopped eating lunch in the cafeteria because that’s where the arrest took place. 

“I was just feeling mad, too, because I felt like I wasn’t really in the wrong because I wasn’t really trying to harm nobody,” Mike said. 

Mike now goes to another school in another district. But he says his personal experience at Armstrong High impacted his perception of police in Richmond schools. He says they shouldn’t be there.

“They just want to get you for something,” Mike said. “They just want to see you locked up, hurt.” 

Marissa Boyce, a Richmond public defender who represents young people in court like Mike, said there’s definitely a feeling that some kids are being picked on or targeted by officers. 

“I feel like I’m seeing the same officers over and over,” Boyce said. “And I’m seeing them do things that I think are objectively bad.”

She recalls a video from 2019 of a Richmond officer, not a school resource officer, yelling “wait until your asses turn 18” to a group of middle school students. 

“I can't even imagine the community outcry that would occur if people could see the things that I see on body camera footage,” Boyce said. 

Boyce says it’s problematic that the only time she even sees bodycam footage in the first place is after a student has already been charged. She’d like to see more accountability for officers’ actions, in school and on the street. So would Diana. She said there was no internal review of the officers involved in her son’s arrest that she’s aware of. 

The Richmond Police Department didn’t respond to questions about Mike’s case. It is unclear if they reviewed the body cam footage in this case. A spokesperson described the general SRO review practice, saying, supervisors will “randomly pick two SROs a month and review their BWC (body worn camera) footage.”

Cellphone footage of Mike's arrest.

A spokesperson for RPD wouldn’t make individual officers available to talk to VPM for this story, and a spokesperson for RPS said they are “unable to comment on personnel matters” about the school security officers involved. 

VPM did sit down with Lt. Ronnie Armstead, who oversees school resource officers in RPS. In terms of oversight, he said officers have to share student arrest information with police sergeants. 

“They [sergeants] know about it [an arrest] even before paperwork is done, sometimes. And we have no issues with it,” Armstead said.  

VPM obtained arrest records from the 2018-2019 school year, showing the majority of arrests occurred due to fights between students. Armstead says that these arrests only represent a fraction of the total number of fights students got into. 

“If we would arrest for every altercation that took place in a school, it would be hundreds. It would literally be hundreds,” Armstead said. “We only arrest if there’s a clear, I mean clear, can't-avoid-it violation of the law that we can't just say, walk away from it.”

RPS confirmed that there were over 500 fights last school year, and that about 10 percent of those resulted in an arrest. 

Still, the district’s superintendent, Jason Kamras, doesn’t think police need to be in schools. Last year, the district spent over $4 million on school security staff. These officers don’t have a badge and a gun, but do receive training on how to de-escalate situations and work with youth.

A new restorative justice program is being implemented this fall that is designed to diffuse conflict, and even prevent it before an officer gets involved. Harry Hughes, chief schools officer for RPS, says they’re having teachers hold what are called community circles at the beginning of the school day, everyday, at all grade levels. 

“If we were in person, the community circle would literally be set up like a circle,” Hughes said. “There's a great body of research that shows the power of putting individuals in a circle as a way to build relationships between them.”

The circles are supposed to help a student own up to their mistakes, while at the same time providing space for the victim to talk about how they were hurt. Hughes pointed to the successful use of similar community circles in Oakland, California.

“Instead of just taking children and saying, well, you two fought, so let's go ahead and suspend you for a few days when we all know that suspension does not change behaviors...we take those children and give them an opportunity to talk out their issues,” Hughes said.

The Richmond School Board is expected to vote on whether or not to remove police from city schools sometime this fall. 

But since police are employees of the city and not the school district, Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council would ultimately have to sign off on Kamras’s request to reallocate funds the city spends on SROs to other staff, like school counselors. 


Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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