Brian Burney, an 11th-grader at Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin High School, says that a school police officer punched him in the face simultaneously with both fists, and threw him to the ground in a chokehold after the two had an argument over using the restroom without a pass. Burney, who is asthmatic, says that, in the officer’s grip, he was scared for his life.
“I felt like Eric Garner because I couldn’t breathe,” says Burney, 18, referring to an incident that took place last Thursday. “And I felt like I was going to die that day.”
Burney says that he needed to use the restroom immediately, and grew frustrated when the officer, who the school police union and district have identified as Jeffrey Maciocha, blocked his way because he did not have a pass. “I really had to go bad,” says Burney who, according to his mother, has been hospitalized previously for asthma and has bladder problems. “We had words. I threw an orange at the wall out of frustration because I really had to go to the bathroom.” In a letter to parents, Principal Gregory Hailey put forward a somewhat a different account, saying that Burney “grew angry and threw an orange in the direction of the school police officer, causing the officer to restrain the student.”
The incident became public on Monday after the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth organizing group of which Burney is a member, posted a short video recorded by another student online. Neither the School Police Association of Philadelphia nor Maciocha could be reached for comment.
Much is disputed, and the video only captured a few seconds of the incident, after the officer already had Burney on the ground. What isn't disputed is that Burney suffered a concussion. But the School District of Philadelphia suggested that he was to blame.
“What we know is that the student suffered a concussion from hitting his forehead on the floor,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. “He admitted to the nurse that he voluntarily smacked his forehead on the floor.”
Burney says that he did bang his head on the ground but did so because “I felt like I was going to die.”
Gallard said that the principal witnessed the officer restraining Burney, and that it wasn't a chokehold, though the principal did not witness the actual takedown.
As for Burney's claim that he was punched, Gallard says that the nurse found no abrasions around Burney’s cheeks or eyes. But Burney’s mother, Joy Burney, says that her son’s face indeed showed signs of assault, and that the school nurse gave him ice for his face. She says that the inflammation was still clear enough two days later that doctors at the emergency room X-rayed his face to make sure there were no fractures.
“He’s a student and he was treated as though he was a criminal in the street,” says Joy Burney, “for committing the crime of wanting to use the bathroom.”
School officials' behavior after the incident does not inspire confidence in their impartiality. The student witness to the incident who recorded the brief video says that a second school police officer deleted it from his phone shortly thereafter.
“I felt like they wanted to cover it up,” said the student, who spoke to Salon on the condition that their name not be used. It didn’t work. One of the student's friends suggested that he check his Google backup. And there it was. The Philadelphia Student Union posted it online on Monday.
Gallard, the school district spokesperson, confirms that the officer deleted the video: The student punched “delete,” he emailed, and the officer hit the “confirm” button. The officer appears to have gone beyond what district policy allows.
“The SPO did ask the student to erase the video,” Gallard emailed. “We do not have a practice or policy regarding that. There is a policy in BFHS that prohibits the use of phone while in the school.”
It seems unclear from the very brief video whether Burney was placed in a chokehold. Gallard says that it clearly shows he was not, while the Student Union says that it shows that he was. Whatever the truth about the punches and the chokehold, however, the witness says that the takedown was excessive.
“Brian’s a smaller guy, and the officer's really big,” said the student. “I feel like he could have used way less force and restrained him just as effectively.”
Or maybe, he could have not restrained him at all.
The School District says that an investigation is underway and that the officer has been transferred to a non-school site. But on Tuesday, Benjamin Franklin Principal Gregory Hailey sent a letter home to parents putting forward the school police officer’s perspective as “the facts.”
That struck Joy Burney as not exactly impartial.
“What was strange to me is it said these are 'the facts' and then at the end of it said it's still under investigation, and that this officer was removed,” said Burney. “How are these facts if it’s still under investigation?”
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released an audit highlighting the district’s ongoing financial crisis, and also found that nearly half of all school police in a sample they reviewed had not been subjected to a full criminal background check. Philadelphia public schools, long struggling, spun into crisis after the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, deeply slashed education funding.
Joy Burney is angry and wants justice for her child. She says that he is a good kid, and was in his ROTC uniform at the time he was assaulted. She wonders why they couldn’t have just let him use the bathroom, and then written him up for not having a pass.
“He’s not one of those children. This is something I want to stress. Because I don’t want it to look like this is just another black kid acting out…he has never been in trouble,” she says, sounding as though she is on the verge of tears. “I’m just irate. And I’m not sitting down on this one.”
It’s unclear what’s next for Brian. He works outside of school doing convention registration work for a temp company, and likely won’t be returning to school any time soon.
“I’m not going to school until I feel comfortable, until I feel safer,” says Burney. “If something happens to me they’re going to allow it to happen.”