About 100 students walked out of Central High School in St. Paul on Tuesday and marched to City Hall, where they met with Mayor Chris Coleman to protest the trespassing arrest last week of a former student.
The arrest of the 16-year-old black youth was captured on video and was being circulated on the internet. It shows a police officer pinning the teenager on his stomach in order to handcuff him. The student is heard alternately cursing and crying out for help and saying he had only come to visit a teacher. St. Paul Police said in a statement that the officer acted appropriately.
“We are students, not criminals,” read one sign carried by a student protester. They were accompanied by about 25 supporters, including some parents.
Police led the march in patrol cars, telling the protesters they were breaking the law by staying in the street and urging them to get on the sidewalk, but the demonstrators ignored the demand. There were no arrests.
At City Hall, the protesters crowded into the City Council chambers where Coleman listened to their demands. They asked that the school resource officer who made the arrest, Bill Kraus, be removed. They also demanded racial sensitivity training for officers and more consideration of which officers are assigned to schools.
The students pressed Coleman on whether he thought the 16-year-old had been mistreated. He declined to say, adding that he was waiting for the results of an investigation that would explain what led to the arrest. After agreeing to meet with the students again, Coleman left.
“While there are a number of demands for which the City does not have direct oversight, I am inspired to find areas where I might be able to help them achieve some of their demands — and I committed to them that I would begin by reviewing their requests,” he said in a statement released after the meeting. “I also made it clear to the students that I do not believe all arrests demonstrate police brutality. ”
Discipline problems have become an issue in St. Paul schools this year. In December, Central was the scene of a student attack on a teacher who tried to break up a fight in the cafeteria. That and confrontations between students and teachers at other schools touched off teacher protests and led to heated exchanges, mostly on social media, between teachers’ allies and Black Lives Matter supporters.
The recently approved teachers’ contract includes funding for several schools to test new programs to defuse behavior problems.
The 16-year-old arrested last week has been charged with obstructing the legal process-interfering with a police officer, a gross misdemeanor, and trespassing on school property, a misdemeanor.
The teen had been in the school for about an hour without permission, according to Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman. He was told to leave by school employees and Kraus, but refused. Kraus grabbed the youth’s phone and walked outside with the young man following, said Linders. Outside, the youth shoved Kraus, who then sprayed him with chemical irritant.
“The subject continued to resist arrest and the officer used a minimal amount of force to place him under arrest and get him in handcuffs,” Linders said.
Asked about the video, Linders said, “No officer ever wants to use force. This situation could have been avoided had the subject simply done what the officer asked him to do, which was to simply leave the school.”
According to Kraus’ personnel data, he has been disciplined 11 times; no incident appears to have involved misconduct toward citizens.
In a statement issued last week, St. Paul schools spokesman Ryan Vernosh said police are reviewing the incident. “The St. Paul Public Schools value our partnership with the St. Paul Police Department and our School Resource Officers (SROs),” he said.
Makkah Salaam, 17, a junior at Central and one of the leaders of the Central Pan African Union, which called for the walkout, said the teen had previously attended the school and returned to talk to a teacher about his grades. “It’s just terrible,” she said of the video.
She said she was glad the mayor had agreed to another meeting, but also felt some dismay. “He’s a white man who does not understand what it is like to be black in America,” she said.
The school district issued a statement saying it “respects students’ rights to lawfully and peacefully protest.” But students who participated in the walkout may receive unexcused absences.
A flier circulated Tuesday urging students to “call in black Wednesday” to protest the police action at Central.
Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.