Sitting down for a typical lunch in the Graham Park Middle School cafeteria on an otherwise normal day in May, Ryan Turk realized he had forgotten to pick up his milk while he was going through the lunch line. He went back to grab a small carton; "a recipient of free lunches at the Virginia school, Ryan felt he was just doing what he did every day," the Washington Post reported. That's when the trouble started.
After he retrieved his drink, he sat back down at his table, Ryan told the publication, and was confronted by a school resource officer (SRO). (SROs are essentially cops placed in a school.) The SRO accused Ryan of stealing the 65 cent milk, even though the middle schooler was entitled to it for free. Police have said the middle schooler tried to "conceal" the milk after taking it from the lunch line, but Shamise Turk, Ryan's mother, told the Washington Post that she saw surveillance footage of the incident, and has disputed this claim.
Ryan says he told the officer he would the put the milk back, but the officer told him to take it to the principal's office. That's when the officer grabbed him by his neck, Ryan said. "I yanked away from him. I told him to get off of me because he's not my dad," Ryan said in a another interview with a local news station. The police then placed him in handcuffs, according to reports.
Turk says Ryan, who is black, was carted down to the principal's office, searched for drugs, deemed further uncooperative, and suspended by the school for theft and "being disrespectful." "Because he was fidgety, kept pulling on the strings of his pants, and laughing when we were trying to talk to him and just wouldn't talk," Turk explained.
As if that wasn't enough, Ryan was charged by the Prince William County Police Department with larceny following his suspension. "The school resource officers have a nice name, but they're police officers," Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, explained. "They're fully authorized, deputized police officers who are operating in the school system just like they would on the street."
Initially, the police were going to handle the charges through a diversion program, which would still leave the student with a criminal history, but Ryan's mother insisted on a trial to clear the charges and prove her son's innocence; Ryan had a court hearing on Tuesday. "My son is not going to admit to something he did not do," she told the Post.
"This story is deeply disturbing," Sarah Hinger, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, told Broadly via email. "When police are in schools, a minor perceived transgression can become 'disorderly conduct.' Black and brown students, as well as students with disabilities, are more likely to be criminalized in this way. These practices are not only unfair, but likely violate students' rights."
This is a case of everything wrong.
Research has shown that it is all too common for students of color to become targets of harsh judicial discipline. In Virginia, black kids are almost twice as likely to face legal punishment for school infractions when compared to their white peers.
"Initially, we put police into schools on the assumption that they would look out for our children and guard our children. Now school resource officers, as this case illustrates, are turning our schools into places where more kids are sent into the juvinille system than educated. Police are using heavy law enforcement tactics to deal with situations that ought to be dealt with in an in-school discipline process," Gastañaga said.
However, school disciplinary measures no less biased, she added. A 2015 study found that racial stereotypes lead to teachers having disproportionately negative responses to black students' misbehavior. This means that black kids are more likely to get suspended and expelled because of bias against them.
"We have to address much broader problems in the way we discipline our children and manage behavior," Gastañaga said. "This is a case of everything wrong. It's an example of how schools ought not to work."