Recent police shootings may have played a role in student unrest at the middle school on March 15
VANCOUVER — As students return from Spring break, the healing will continue at Gaiser Middle School.
So will the questions about what led to what police have termed a “riot” during a basketball tournament on March 15. Nine students were arrested and 28 students were “emergency expelled” (up from 27 earlier reported). An emergency expulsion lasts up to 10 days while a student’s involvement is investigated. Most of those students have since returned to school.
ClarkCountyToday.com obtained arrest reports from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) through a public records request. First responders describe a scene of chaos, anger, and mistrust, with crowds of students pushing, shoving, swearing, and threatening the more than 30 law enforcement officers who responded from CCSO and the Vancouver Police Department.
Based on witness accounts in those reports, the altercation started in the stands as the basketball tournament was under way. Some witnesses said students reported one teen had a gun, and two other teens confronted that student. The confrontation turned physical, and security personnel intervened, removing one of the students forcibly from the gym after he refused to leave on his own.
Video shot by students and parents at the scene show one teen being dragged out of the gym while surrounding students shout and yell at the adults. Some students would later tell their parents they were upset because they felt as if the wrong student was being singled out.
Ultimately, no weapon was found, but deputies said they heard numerous threats from students about shooting police.
Outside of the school, the adults tried to separate the groups of kids, telling them to wait on the sidewalk and get off school grounds as the basketball tournament inside came to a halt. Meanwhile, other videos show one student in particular being talked to by first responding deputies and school officials. One adult is shoved repeatedly while keeping his hands at his sides.
As deputies arrived shortly after 5:40 p.m., they reported 50-60 teens gathered outside the gym and situation became tense. Every officer reported hearing various degrees of insults, threats, and even racist terms. Students were described as aggressive, belligerent, combative and, in many cases, physically attacking officers or spitting on them.
So, if true, what led to this troubling behavior?
To community members who crowded a Vancouver City Council meeting and the Vancouver School Board meeting following the Gaiser incident, the anger apparently stemmed from recent officer-involved shootings, three of which involved black men.
“Gaiser Middle School? That was an honest response,” said Cecilia Towner, founder of the Vancouver Black Lives Matter chapter at the school board meeting. “That’s three deaths by the police, and these children have grown up in a world that most of us have not. They grew up in a time of police shootings.”
“When a local boy, 16-year-old Clayton Joseph, was shot and killed by police, I watched in utter despair and disbelief as my 16-year-old son and his friend group, of approximately 10 vivacious and usually very chatty kids, shut down and would not talk,” Patricia Skinner Patterson, who is white, told the school board. “And this group of kids is white and white-presenting, and I wondered ‘what must those teens of brown skin and black skin be experiencing?’”
While it would be easy to dismiss those comments as reactionary and uninformed, one arrest report, in particular, may lend some gravity to the idea that students were reacting to recent events.
A report by Deputy Jeffrey Ruppel is especially illuminating. He relates the scene outside the gym, where school staff, himself, and another deputy were surrounded by approximately 50 teens, with 10 or so calling them the n-word, “bitches, racist” and more. One teen is depicted by Ruppel as a primary instigator.
“He was walking around from group to group and appeared to be getting in other juvenile’s faces, as if wanting to fight,” Ruppel’s report reads. “He had a scowl on his face, clenched fists, and pacing the entire time.”
At that point, Ruppel says school staff member Sean Ryan ordered the crowd to disperse. The 13-year old black male Ruppel described as being so agitated soon returned with a smaller group of teens, spitting his gum out at Ruppel and the other deputies.
Ruppel says he didn’t see who spit the gum, which landed about a foot from his shoe, so he demanded to know who spit it out. “(Name redacted) stepped forward in an aggressive manner, (fists clenched at his side, squared shoulders, scowled look) and said, ‘I did,’” Ruppel’s report reads. “He kept walking directly at me and shrugged at me. He was walking at me with a purpose, and not indicating he was going to stop. His behavior was persuaded (sic) the juveniles with him to keep approaching as well, but he was up front.”
Ruppel says he then pulled the teen from the crowd, pinning his hands behind his back, but deciding not to handcuff him in front of the group. He says Ryan was attempting to calm the boy, but he continued yelling and cursing.
“At this time Deputy Cramer arrived, but it was still only three deputies and a crowd of 50-70 juveniles, all yelling and running at us and attempting to get around us. I heard threats of ‘I’m going to kill you mother f—ers’ ‘F—ing pigs are going to die’ and much more,” Ruppel’s report reads.
He then says that, as they attempted to detain the teen, others in the group rushed forward, trying to grab him. As other deputies intervened, students tried to circumvent them. Eventually, after a struggle, Ruppel says he got the teen into the squad car and had to leave immediately as a group of 20 or so students circled around the south side of the building and approached the vehicle.
On the way to juvenile detention, Ruppel says the teen made several comments about his hatred for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office “due to what he referred to as Deputies shooting his family member. He told me CCSO shot his (redacted) last week for being ‘black.’ He told me we were all racist.”
A parent of another student who was there during the incident told ClarkCountyToday.com he believes that 44-year-old Carlos Hunter, who was shot by Vancouver Police Detectives a week before what happened at Gaiser, did have a stepson that went to the school. The district will not comment on the identity of students involved in the riot.
Vancouver police say Hunter, who had a violent past but whose last criminal conviction had come nearly two decades ago, reached for a gun during a traffic stop by detectives investigating drug activity.
“My brother ain’t no angel but he sure didn’t deserve today to be the way he left this Earth,” said Pam Hunter to KOIN-TV news during a vigil shortly after Hunter’s death, disputing accounts by investigators that Hunter had reached for a stolen handgun tucked into his waist before he was shot.
It’s not a far leap to assume that, if the angry 13-year-old Deputy Ruppel spoke with was telling the truth, students at the school may have, in fact, been on a hair trigger.
“I’ve lived in Vancouver for over 40 years,” said Ophelia Noble, an advocate for community inclusiveness at the school board meeting. “My mother and I had a conversation. Never has there been a time where our communities of color have experienced three deaths in as many weeks, 27 students being emergency suspended from class. It’s prompting a lot of emotion. It’s prompting a lot of insecurity of relationships and trust from community to systems.”
While most of the officer-involved shootings remain under investigation, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain has insisted that each incident must be taken on its own merits. Members of the public, meanwhile, have demanded the city equip its officers with body cameras. It’s something McElvain says he would support, if the city is willing to spend the money it would cost not only for the equipment but storing the video footage and dealing with sensitive public records requests.
A number of the people who spoke in front of the Vancouver School Board urged the district to take a measured approach when it comes to the students either arrested or expelled as part of the Gaiser incident.
“We know that a disciplinary mark like this on a student’s record can impact their future opportunities,” said Tuck Swords, who lives in Vancouver. “And we also know that the children involved were reacting in part to recent police shootings in Vancouver, and to the overall climate of fear that police shootings locally and nationally cause for children, especially for children of color.”
The district says it already uses restorative justice in instances like this, and will continue working with staff, resource officers, and the parents of the students involved to learn what other changes can be made.
Contrary to popular opinion, district spokesperson Pat Nuzzo says restorative justice doesn’t mean that students pay no price for bad behavior.
”Often the district includes the use of restorative practices, which are strategies to help re-engage students in the school community after they have been excluded for disciplinary reasons,” the district says in their statement. “The strategies focus on meaningful accountability to repair the harm that’s been done with those involved and to help everyone move forward, including the adults.”
“Meaningful accountability repairs the harm done to people and relationships rather than simply punishing,” said Towner. “Meaningful accountability gives students, parents, staff, and the community the knowledge, strategy, and skills required to develop and sustain a safe, inclusive school.”
According to the district, most of the students who were emergency expelled after the Gaiser incident have since returned to class. Their re-engagement plan included certain steps, including things like:
- Working with counselors to process the incident and their feelings about what happened.
- Depending on progress, students can return to their normal school schedule or continue to work with counselors throughout the day.
- Counselors will continue to check in with their students throughout the week.
- Re-engagement will continue to allow students to catch up on missed school work.
- Students and police school resource officers will meet to talk through the issues.
VPS says they also focus on what is known as social-emotional learning, which they say empowers students in the areas of “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.”
The goal, they add, is to help students become self-confident, manage stress, understand the perspective of others, learn empathy, negotiate conflict constructively, and ask for help when needed.