WILMINGTON — The Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office are conducting an internal investigation of an incident involving a school liaison officer and a special needs student.
The investigation was launched after the mother of the student filed a complaint with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO).
There are several accounts of the incident, which diverge over what triggered the use of force by a Wilmington Police Department (WPD) school liaison office (SLO). There is also body camera video of the incident, which — while it has been reviewed by law enforcement — has not been released to the public or the mother of the student involved.
The incident took place at the J.C. Roe Center on Wednesday, February 26. A teacher at the school suspected two students of using a ‘vape pen’ with THC. Some accounts included that the teacher smelled marijuana — although e-cigarette devices produce much less odor — but neither J.C. Roe Principal Glen Locklear or the New Hanover County School (NHCS) communications office would comment on this.
After being informed of the teacher’s suspicions, the school administration contacted an SLO as well as J.C. Roe’s School Resource Officer (SRO), a NHCSO deputy. The first student consented to going to the main office for a search but the second student did not, leading to that student being physically restrained, ending up handcuffed on the floor. The source of the alleged marijuna smell was apparently not found and no charges were pressed against either student.
Law enforcement have not officially commented on what led to the use of force, so the only on-the-record account is from the mother of the student involved, who asked to only be identified by her first name, Christina, to protect the privacy of her son. According to Christina, she was not present during the incident; by the time she was called her son had already been handcuffed and taken the school’s SRO room.
Family’s account of incident
Christina said that, in her son’s account of the incident, he had no knowledge of either marijuana or an e-cigarette. According to her son, Christina said, he asked for his mother to be present before he was searched and the officer then used force to throw him to the floor and restrain while he was handcuffed. While the SRO deputy was present, Christina said her son was face down, and couldn’t tell what the deputy’s involvement was. According to Christina, her son told her he had no objection to being searched, only to the search being conducted without his mother there.
While Christina’s son told both law enforcement and school staff that he was not badly injured, Christina later took him to a New Hanover Regional Medical Center facility to get him checked out and to document bruising from the incident. According to Christina, when she pressed her son on why he had not spoken up about his injuries he voiced concerns about being viewed as a ‘snitch.’
Christina noted that her son deals with sensory and mood regulation issues and has the mental level of a much younger student. Because of this, the school has established an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and other protocols. These included an awareness that Christina’s son is not to be touched, she said.
“I’ve had many, many meetings with the school, and they’re very aware that they’re not to touch him,” she said. “Sometimes in situations like this, [my son] goes non-verbal, and so I’ve always told him, ‘if you’re questioned or they want to search you, just ask for me.’”
Christina also voiced concerns that the SLO involved did not abide by — and possibly was not informed of — her son’s IEP and other protocols established for him.
Christina’s son does have previous disciplinary incidents at E.A. Laney High School that ultimately resulted in his placement at J.C. Roe. However, Christina said she had concerns about how those past incidents were handled by the school district; she added that she declined an offer to allow her son to return to Laney because she claims the school failed to follow her son’s IEP.
Complaint, investigation, responses
After the incident, Christina filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office, where the Internal Affairs division is now investigating.
Although the SLO involved was a WPD employee, the department officers who work in the New Hanover County Schools fall under the jurisdiction of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO). In this case, both WPD and NHCSO are reviewing the incident, according to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer. The Wilmington Police Department is aware there had been an ‘incident’ and was reviewing it, according to spokesperson Linda Thompson. After the parent filed a complaint, it became a “personnel issue,” and the department could not comment further, Thompson said.
NHCS spokesperson Caress Clegg said the district was aware of the incident, and offered the following statement.
Whenever possible New Hanover County Schools works to alleviate and resolve student concerns and challenging behaviors using district administration and school personnel. There are instances that arise however where our School Resource Officers (SRO) who are employed by the Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office are needed. If a teacher suspects a student of using an illegal substance on campus, bringing this to the attention of the school administration and SRO’s is warranted and a search may be initiated. School administrators may request the assistance of SROs if a student refuses to comply with a safety directive, such as removal from a setting where there is a safety concern. District teachers and school administrators work with our students daily and maintain knowledge of individualized supports for students. The only time an SRO would be requested to intervene is if the safety of our students or staff was at jeopardy.
The district noted that it would contact Christina and ask if she “will grant the district permission to speak with media on confidential student information” in order to allow the district to further discuss the incident. Clegg followed up say Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, Julie Varnam, had been in touch with Christina but that “permission was not given.” Christina confirmed that she spoke to Varnam, but said Varnam never asked for permission to release any information.
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