Use of pepper spray, Taser on students questioned

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Sarah Nagem
Earlier this month, a school resource officer at Jesse Carson High School used a Taser on a student who had been fighting. Two days later, another resource officer pepper sprayed a student who got in a fight at a Salisbury High School football game.
The incidents bring up questions ó at least for these students’ families ó about the use of force on students, even when they become violent.
“If it wasn’t my son, if it was someone else, I would feel the same way,” said Peggy Cooper, whose son, 17-year-old Jonathan Pendergraft, was Tasered on Oct. 1.
Cooper said she is upset the incident had to reach the point where such force was used.
Pendergraft, a junior, had an altercation with a 15-year-old student around 11 a.m. that day, said China Grove Police Chief H.H. Coffield.
One of Coffield’s officers, N.M. Stillwell, was the school resource officer who used the Taser on Pendergraft.
Coffield said Stillwell was called to assist in breaking up a fight, which he said began in a restroom.
“They found both of the students and instructed them to go to the office,” Coffield said.
On the way there, he said, Pendergraft jerked away and tried to go after the student he had been fighting.
When Stillwell intervened, Pendergraft started cursing at her and making threats, Coffield said.
The principal, Henry Kluttz, tried to get Pendergraft to comply, Coffield said, but the student became physically aggressive.
“He made some gesture as if he was trying to strike Mr. Kluttz and the officer,” Coffield said.
He said Stillwell then removed the cartridge from her Taser and tried to press it against Pendergraft’s skin. Without the cartridge, a Taser is meant to cause pain without incapacitating its target.
Pendergraft tried to push the Taser away, and Stillwell put the cartridge back into the weapon. She instructed the student to put his hands behind his back so he could be handcuffed, Coffield said.
“He again tried to swing at her in a threatening manner,” he said.
That’s when Stillwell fired the Taser and struck Pendergraft, Coffield said.
“Then he wasn’t resisting anymore,” he said.
Stillwell put handcuffs on Pendergraft and led him to the office. Emergency medical workers arrived to remove the Taser darts from his skin, Coffield said.
He said Stillwell followed police procedure throughout the incident.
As a mother, though, Cooper questioned such a procedure.
Tasers have become somewhat controversial among reports of injuries and even death after the use of them.
Cooper said she realizes her son gets upset sometimes, but she thinks authorities could have handled him better.
“Jon has a real hot temper, but he tries to control it,” Cooper said.
The way Cooper understands the events of that day, the other student tried to pick a fight with her son twice in a restroom. Pendergraft made it clear to the boy he didn’t want any problems, but the boy continued to push him, Cooper said.
“He gave him a fair warning,” Cooper said of her son.
She said the boy pushed Pendergraft again in the hallway. Somehow, she said, her son fell down and blacked out for a couple of minutes or so.
When he awoke, he started to take off his T-shirt to fight the boy, Cooper said.
They started hitting each other, and the principal and Stillwell got involved, she said.
And then Pedergraft was struck with the Taser, by her understanding of events.
He fell to his knees, which became bruised, she said.
Cooper said she doesn’t think the incident had to go as far as it did.
“They should have at least stopped the mess before it got out of hand,” she said.
Pendergraft was charged with resisting, delaying and obstructing and also with affray, Coffield said.
The other student, whose name was not released because of his age, was charged with affray.
– – –
The incident at the football game at Salisbury High School on Oct. 3 is similar to the Carson events.
Sha-la Glenn, a 15-year-old freshman, and her 14-year-old sister, Jasmine, went into the restroom around 8:30 p.m.
Another girl followed them, said Tommy Cline, Sha-la’s grandfather.
The other girl pulled Sha-la’s hair, and somehow the girls began fighting outside the restroom, Cline said.
Officer Mike McCart, a school resource officer at Salisbury High, saw four or five girls fighting on the concrete platform near the restrooms, Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm said.
McCart grabbed two of the girls and put one in a bear hug, Wilhelm said.
He would not identify Sha-la by name because she is a juvenile.
Other police officers arrived then, Wilhelm said. One of the girls managed to get away and started to fight the other girl again, he said.
Wilhelm said McCart wrote in his police report, “I yelled twice, ‘Stop fighting or you will be pepper sprayed,’ but they continued to throw punches at each other.”
McCart then released pepper spray into the crowd of people that had been fighting, Wilhelm said.
One of the girls who had gotten sprayed ó apparently Sha-la ó went on the ground and told police and medical workers to get away from her, Wilhelm said.
He said police escorted her to the patrol car, and McCart said she tried to kick him in the groin.
Cline said he is unhappy with the way police handled his granddaughter.
“I think she could have been easily contained. … You’re telling me they can’t handle a 15-year-old kid? I can’t see that,” Cline said.
Cline was also upset that police put handcuffs on the 14-year-old.
He said Sha-la’s mother took her to Rowan Regional Medical Center that night to be checked.
Sha-la and her sister were not charged in the incident, Cline said.
Wilhelm said two under-age sisters were charged with affray and disorderly conduct. Dominique Horne, 16, of 611 Bringle Ferry Road, was charged with simple assault or affray and disorderly conduct, he said.
– – –
The Rowan-Salisbury School System does not take issue with the methods of restraint school resource officers use, said Dr. Walter Hart, assistant superintendent of administration.
Resource officers are employed by local law enforcement agencies. Some of these officers carry Tasers, and some do not.
Hart said police tactics are best left to law enforcement professionals.
“I don’t think school people who don’t have backgrounds in law enforcement should be directing sheriffs and chiefs of police,” he said.
That’s why school resource officers are in schools, after all ó to keep the peace. And Hart said sometimes these officers have to use force.
“Unfortunately, there are some situations where students … are creating so significant of a disturbance that officers have no choice,” he said.
Based on his experience in education, Hart said, officers typically only use force when they run out of other options.
The families of Pendergraft and Sha-la said they wish officers tried harder at other options.
“I’m just upset the way they treated my granddaughter,” Cline said.