MIAMI – A protest-turned-scuffle between Miami Edison Senior High School students and police has set off a firestorm of controversy that continues to smolder across the city's black communities.
Students, parents and community members gathered at a meeting earlier this week to address the situation.
During the March 2 meeting, an unidentified student said, “All our lives we have been told to stand up for what was right and when we did, we got pulled by our hair.”
Police said the disturbance at the school began shortly after 11 a.m. Feb. 29 during a protest by some students over the arrest on the previous day of another student, according to South Florida Times news partner NBC 6.
Some witnesses claimed the student was handled roughly when he was arrested Feb. 28 on charges of assaulting the assistant principal.
Students called for the assistant principal's arrest after the Feb. 29 protest turned into a melee at the school. Parents sought an apology from police, and for the disorderly conduct charges against 27 students to be dropped.
At the March 2 meeting, student Sandra Alexandra held a long list of demands and read them aloud.
“And if they are not met, they will continue to protest until they are met,’’ she said, according to NBC 6. School officials are urging against it.
Principal Jean Teal talked to reporters March 2 for the first time since the incident, reading a statement she shared with concerned parents at the meeting, which was closed to the media.
“We need our students calm, stress free and focused for tomorrow morning,’’ she said, according to NBC 6. “We cannot afford to allow this incident to fester or linger any longer.’’
Nearly 600 students, parents and school officials convened on campus for the two-hour town hall meeting about the melee.
At issue is whether the incident was a riot, as categorized by law enforcement, or a peaceful protest that was broken up with force, as many students claimed.
In a note published in The Miami Herald’s letters to the editor page, student leader Chrisford Green said, “We simply wanted to tell the truth about what was going on in the schools. Police say that we were fighting, but for us to fight them, they had to start it. We would not risk getting shot. We students feel hurt.”
Yet if the tone of some listeners phoning into WHQT Hot 105’s Hot Talk – a late Sunday night urban radio talk show hosted by Jimmy Brown – was any indication, some members of the community do not support the students’ actions at the predominantly African-American and Haitian-American school.
Some callers repeatedly castigated the students, repeatedly pointing out how unruly they are, and said they should be concerned about getting their education. Some callers criticized the student leaders as they told their side of the story.
Other callers supported the students.
The Miami Herald’s March 4 editorial appeared to give the students the benefit of the doubt, stating that, “The situation never should have gotten to the point where children who gather for a peaceful protest are arrested en masse on a high school campus… The school’s failure to control this situation mustn’t be compounded with lifetime criminal records for children whose protest went badly awry.”
While the media and parents strained to make sense of what happened, students showed the South Florida Times photos in camera phones of fellow students who appeared to be getting hit with batons, kicked, and thrown up against the walls of the school’s cafeteria.
An unidentified student lifted the back of her shirt to show a mark that she said resulted from being hit with a stun gun.
School police reported that they don’t carry stun guns; however, officers from Miami and Miami-Dade Police departments were called to the school as well. The officers from those departments do carry stun guns.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has begun its own investigation into the police agencies that responded to the melee: the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department, the Miami Police Department and the Miami-Dade Police Department.
“We'll be working jointly with the three agencies that were involved with the incident, but at the same time we would be overseeing the review and we will have one supervisor and two agents assigned to this,” said Paige Patterson-Hughes, an FDLE spokeswoman, adding that the schools police chief, Gerald Darling, requested the inquiry.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also weighed in on the matter.
“At this point, the ACLU has concerns based on what we're hearing and have seen about the nature of the actions at Edison High School,” said Muslima Lewis, director of the ACLU of Florida's racial justice project. "It's important that there be a meaningful independent investigation of all of the agencies involved.”
The Feb. 28 struggle between student Wadson Sagaille and Assistant Principal Javier Perez prompted the student demonstrations.
Students said they protested because Perez placed Sagaille in a chokehold. Students said they want Perez fired.
The students planned to organize what they called a “Peaceful Assembly” on a flyer that was distributed announcing the March 3 protest.
At the protest, several students demanded that the charges against their schoolmates be dropped and, once again, that Perez be fired.
Students also contend that it was Perez who disturbed the peaceable assembly on Feb. 29 by sending three officers after student Jerry Green, claiming he had a weapon. Students say Green was holding a cell phone.
Police arrested 27 students, and most were released on house arrest. On March 3, Miami-Dade County Judge Lester Langer dropped the house-arrest requirement for the remaining 18 and directed them to go to class, while imposing a nighttime curfew.
An 18-year-old student was placed on house arrest because he was charged with hitting police with a milk carton.
At the March 2 meeting, student Olinda Pierre, 17, said, “We were standing up for our classmate. What if the people supporting Rosa Parks when she was arrested for just trying to sit in the front of the bus, had said, ‘We are going to stay out of it, it’s not our business?’ ”
Photo by J. Albert Diaz/Miami Herald staff. Students demonstrate outside of Miami Edison Senior High School on Feb. 29, expressing their outrage over the way they say the school’s assistant principal treated a student.