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Police officers pepperspray black students at Sultana High during sit-in

by Mary Shelton Saturday, Nov. 17, 2001 at 9:56 PM
chicalocaside@yahoo.com

On Oct. 23, a group of white students demanded that the black students give up their table at lunch, and the black students said no. What followed could have been a chapter taken out of the civil rights movement, as these students faced a barrage of racial slurs, pepperspray and arrests by the white students, school officials and the local police department.

errorOn Oct. 23, a chapter out of the civil rights era was revisited, as a group of Black students at Sultana High School in Hesperia refused to give up their seats to a group of white students, and were pepper sprayed by officers from the Hesperia Police Department.


I have a crowd of Black students. I need you to get half of them, Vice Principal Cindy Costa told the Hesperia Police Department, according to several of the students. The officers were dispatched, and pepper sprayed a group of 20 Black students who were asking school officials and officers why they were arresting Melvin Wright, a Black student, and not a White student, who had been in an altercation with Wright, after calling Wright and his sister, Tamika, n-----s.


A representative at the Hesperia Police Department defended the use of pepper spray, and said they had dispatched officers to deal with a problem at the high school.
Sultana High School refused to comment, referring calls to the Hesperia School District. District representative Bill Freeman, who is handling the situation, was noticeably upset when asked to comment on the incident. When asked to present his account of the incident that took place, he refused, Were not going to get into that. There is a $100 million law suit pending, and weve made all the statements we will make without seeing the lawsuit, he said.


The lawsuit was set to be filed in the United States District Court by attorney Mark Blankenship on behalf of most of the 20 Black students who were involved in the incident that began when a group of them were eating lunch in a schoolyard on Oct. 22, and White students had told them they had to leave. When they refused, several students had lifted up an end of the table unit in an attempt to knock them off.


The next day, at lunchtime, a group of Black students were sitting at the same table, eating lunch when the White students came over and told them again to move. The Black student refused, saying that there was enough room for everyone and they had a right to eat there. The White students then used racial slurs. According to the students in the lawsuit, Costa and school safety officer Ron Colvin were standing nearby, watching the events unfold without intervening. One White male student called one of the female students, a n----- b---- and spit in her face. Wright, the students brother, told the White student to treat his sister with respect. The student called Wright a n----- and Wright hit him. A fight broke out between the two men, and school safety officers arrested Wright, and put him in handcuffs, allowing other White students to spit on him and call him racial slurs, students have said. The Black students demanded to know why the White student in the fight was not arrested.Tamika Wright said, Dont arrest my brother and Corvin had said, he was going to get her, she said.


And then school officials called the police department.


According to the students in the lawsuit, Hesperia police officers arrived, supervised by Officer Martinez, and pepper sprayed the group of Black students. Six students were arrested, and three Black students were treated at a local hospital for injuries suffered during the incident


Student Mercedes Jenkins was one of those pepper sprayed.


I was at the hospital later that day, face burning, tongue numb and swelling, eyes burning and chest pain, she wrote in a statement, adding that Costa and other school officials had always treated the Black students differently than the White students.


Jenkins said police officers had walked up to her and pepper sprayed her in the face. It hurted but I was too mad to feel the pain, she said. Her cousin was arrested while helping another student into the restroom. They wouldnt let any Black student call their parents, she said. She added that the police had thought the incident was funny, and that she heard one of them say to another, all n-----s need home schooling, a statement also heard by students Sabrina Culpepper, Sierra ONeal and Shanta Walker.


Another student, Rena Moorhead heard about the pepper spraying of the students, and wanted to know what was going on. After walking into an office, she saw a group of students red eyed, and crying, and Walker told her police were pepper spraying the Black students. It got to the point where I couldnt stand seeing African-American students treated this way, she said. She watched her friends, Matthew Gulliory and Matt Henderson as they were escorted through the quadrangle area by police, red-eyed and in handcuffs, in front of all the students.


When I saw all this happening, it not only hurt my heart, it also hurt my view of the school, she said. I wanted to think that Sultana was a safe place.


Tamika Wright was arrested when she tried to call her parents, according to the lawsuit. after a supervisor yanked the cord out of the wall, while she was using the phone. She said Colvin put the handcuffs on so tight, it made my hands swell.


Tamika and Melvin Wrights father came to the school to talk to officials about the incident involving his children. According to him, school officer Mosley said, shut up or Ill arrest you. Parent Stella Colpepper saw the students crying and in pain, and saying, dont hit me to the officers, and asked them why children were being pepper sprayed. Officer Rodriguez told her, it was not as bad as it seemed, she said. Culpepper said that Martinez had also told her that many of the students were pepper sprayed accidentally by a new officer.


After the incident, the parents of several of the students complained that police officers appeared at their homes, asking them to sign papers, dealing with a work crew program sponsored by the school and San Bernardino Probation Department. The multi-sheet form included release forms for the parents, allowing police officers to pepper spray students in the crew program as well as videotape or photograph students in the program. None of the parents signed the form.


According to the lawsuit, Stella Colpepper had met in late September with school officials to complain about swastikas and Confederate flags being placed on lunch tables used by the Black students, but school officials did nothing.


When contacted about the incident, Hesperia Police Department representative Roxanne said that the police had been dispatched after being called by Sultana High School officials to assist campus police with a fight that had occurred. The police went out, and saw that there was a problem, she said. They told the students to disperse and go to their classrooms, and when that failed took further measures. We deployed pepper spray into the ground from a canister, she said.


She said that the campus police were trained police officers, who had worked with other agencies, before being hired by the Hesperia School District. None of them worked for the San Bernardino Sheriffs Department, she said, though Hesperias police department does contract its services from that agency. When asked the race of the six students arrested, she said, Im not really sure, although at least five of them were African-Americans.


The Victorville office of the San Bernardino County District Attorneys office is investigating the incident. When asked as to the status of the students arrested including Melvin Wright, a representative of the juvenile division said that she was not allowed to release any information,on him or the other students arrested. Students Melvin Wright, Tamika Wright and Donell Collins were suspended for five days by the school officials, and most of the Black students were issued citations. Melvin Wright remains in custody at San Bernardino Juvenile Hall.


In 1988, the city of Hesperia entered into a contract for services with the Sheriffs Department, and pays $4.3 million annually. It is one of our contract cities, Chip Patterson, the spokesperson for the Sheriffs Department said, adding that all of the officers at the citys department were initially hired and trained by the Sheriffs Department and then assigned to the contract cities. We designate personnel to that station or department, he said.

When asked which entity is liable for any incidents involving the officers including excessive force, he said that he was not certain, but said that if a training issue was involved, then the county likely would be liable, rather than the city.


A press conference to announce the filing of the lawsuit had been scheduled to take place on Nov. 8, during the school districts meeting, but both events were later cancelled, after a group of representatives from the NAACP, Mexican American Political Association and the African American Chambers of Commerce appeared. .

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