A fight that happened Feb. 26 at Lincoln High left one school police officer injured and introduced three students to the criminal justice system.
The story, as told by witnesses and prosecutors, starts with a group of students who were roughhousing at lunchtime.
At one point, a police officer, Bashir Abdi, arrived and tried to break up a scuffle. The group dispersed, but Abdi followed one student into an adjacent parking garage. An altercation between Abdi and several students ensued. Students beat Abdi. Abdi called for back-up. He Tased one student and several others were pepper-sprayed.
The order in which these happened is under review. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis halted the release of video that captured the incident because it’s now evidence in a criminal investigation into the three students – two seniors and one sophomore – who have been charged with felonies stemming from the event.
The fight highlighted deeper issues in the Lincoln community and raised legitimate questions about the power of school police.
Parents and students have described a sense of disconnection between students, teachers and district staff. Exacerbating this is a sense of distrust among black and Latino communities toward law enforcement that extends beyond the school.
In this situation, one relevant question for school police concerns their policies regarding when and why to respond to a situation with force. That is, under what circumstances is it appropriate to use Tasers, pepper-spray or guns on students?
On Wednesday, parents gathered again at Lincoln, this time for a chance to speak with members of the San Diego Unified police force. (Responding to one parent who submitted a formal legal request for these policies, the district says it has no policies it can release publicly.)
The meeting was held in Lincoln’s auditorium. More than 1,400 students attend Lincoln, but only about 25 parents showed up. One active Lincoln parent attributed the low turnout to the fact that parents were only given 24 hours’ notice of the meeting.
San Diego Unified Police Chief Littlejohn opened the meeting with praise for the students, inviting applause for the fact that police were involved in 301 incidents at Lincoln last year, but only 131 this year. (Littlejohn did not say how those stats compare with numbers at other schools.)
Littlejohn read from an extended list of praise for Abdi, the officer involved in the fight. Since Abdi has been with the school police force, Littlejohn said, he has joined student-staff soccer games and provided in-class training on what students should do when they’re stopped by police.
Afterward, Littlejohn took questions from the group, including one of ours:
Question: If San Diego Unified has its own police force, why is SDPD handling the criminal investigation into the Lincoln fight?
Local chapters of the NAACP and ACLU entered the Lincoln conversation soon after the fight.
Both groups have called for a release of security footage that could give clarity to the order in which things happened. The ACLU said it is looking at the incident within the context of over-policing.
NAACP San Diego branch president Andre Branch said the SDPD shouldn’t have jurisdiction over this case at all.
Branch is correct. According to the Memorandum of Understanding between the San Diego Unified Police Department and SDPD, school police are supposed to investigate crimes that happen on school property.
SDPD, on the other hand, are more often called in to investigate major incidents or allegations of child abuse.
On Wednesday, Littlejohn explained briefly that school police can transfer a case to SDPD in certain cases, so that’s what they decided to do: “The MOU has a provision for special circumstances, which allows for SDPD jurisdiction. And that’s exactly what happened,” Littlejohn said.
Litttlejohn is right, too.
Meanwhile, of the three teens who now face felony charges from fight, one student has returned to campus, one transferred to another school and another is completing assignments from home.
Abdi has not returned to campus, and Littlejohn said he didn’t know when another officer will be assigned to Lincoln. (One student at Wednesday’s meeting said there have been plain-clothes officers on campus since the incident.)
Lincoln principal John Ross said, since the fight, he’s paid teachers extra to give up their lunch one day a week so they could monitor the campus.
“I want to ensure if anything does pop off, teachers respond,” Ross said. “Myself and my team have been working around the clock to make sure we don’t have anything like this happen again.”
Littlejohn said he was adding a complaint option to the bottom of a district website, so if students tell their parents they had a negative encounter with school police, parents can report it. Ross said he is making himself available to parents and students if they have other concerns.