School community gathers to condemn violence against student
Though the clouds hung heavy above the School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 Broad, students and teachers gathered in front of the building to rally in support of Benjamin Franklin High School student Brian Burney.
Burney, a junior at Ben Franklin and member of the Philadelphia Student Union, said he was assaulted by a school police office while attempting to use the bathroom at his school. In a statement released by the union, the incident occurred when Burney left class to go use the restroom. He found that the bathrooms on the fourth and third floors were locked.
On the third floor, Burney was told by school Police Officer Jeffrey Machiocha that he needed a pass in order to use the bathroom. An argument took place and Burney threw an orange against the wall. Soon after, Burney found himself in what the student union described as a chokehold.
However, School District spokesman Fernando Gallard told Philly.com that it was "clearly a restraining hold and not a choke hold." Gallard also told Philly.com that the orange that Burney threw hit the officer in the head. The student union disputes that claim.
At Tuesday’s press conference representatives of Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), Reverend Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church and Reverend Leslie Callahan of St. Paul’s Baptist Church were in attendance.
Jitu Brown, National Director of Journey for Justice Alliance, traveled from Chicago to speak in support of Burney, and Kesi Foster of the Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City also made the journey.
“I am so pleased to be standing here with the Philadelphia Student Union representing many of the school employees who are members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers,” Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said. “It is unacceptable to hear a student speak, to talk about being afraid in school. It is unconscionable that our children should fear going to school which should be a place where they learn.”
Jordan added how happy his days were when he attended Philadelphia Public Schools and that the same should be the case for the students of today. He recited three times how all students within Philadelphia schools should be treated with “dignity.”
After the incident with Officer Machiocha, Burney was diagnosed as having suffered a concussion by the physicians at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Machiocha has been transferred while the district investigates allegations that he assaulted a student, reports Philly.com.
“When I saw that a young high school boy named Brian at one of our high schools say ‘he couldn’t breathe’ in a chokehold by a school police officer—not on our watch,” Councilwoman Helen Gym said. “I want to make it clear that Philadelphia City Council stands against the use of any unnecessary or excessive force in our schools. We take this issue to be an issue of human and civil rights and we will definitely stand and make sure things change for our young people.”
Gym held a letter from members of City Council that demanded the School District of Philadelphia condemn the force that was used at Benjamin Franklin High School.
The letter, Gym said, asks that the school district account for training policies with school police officers and make them clear to the public as well as students. Gym also added that within the letter the council is asking for a complaint process recognized by the School District of Philadelphia that values the voices of young people and commit to a humane loving nurturing school environment.
“This judgment of good schools versus bad schools has determined how policing is done in these schools,” Luke Risher, junior at Science and Leadership Academy (SLA) said. “These good schools, like Science and Leadership Academy, may not have metal detectors, may have one or very few police officers in their schools. Maybe the police officer student relationship is much better, maybe they have open bathrooms and not locked bathrooms.”
Richter added that even though SLA still has “some crazy stuff” taking place from time to time, such as fights, fires in the bathrooms and drugs in hallways, the difference is how these situations are dealt with.
“The difference is that in some of these magnet schools we have one on one conversations between faculty and students,” Risher said. “We use restorative justice tactics and have relationships between student and administration that is based on trust and care.”
Towards the end of the rally, among the loud roar of clapping and the echoing sound of a helicopter from above, Burney emerged from the crowd. Dress neatly and appearing overwhelmed.
“I just want to thank ya’ll for coming out here and showing support,” he said. “It means a lot that people care. I can’t really express myself because I feel like I’m going to cry and stuff, but thank you for walking with us through this struggle.”