Security footage showing a student being escorted out of Todd Beamer High School on Oct. 18 after an incident with police. Image obtained via public records request

Security footage showing a student being escorted out of Todd Beamer High School on Oct. 18 after an incident with police. Image obtained via public records request

Injustice? Beamer incident sparks rumors, innuendo and falsehoods

An Oct. 18 incident at Todd Beamer High School between a student and a Federal Way police officer assigned to the school has spent the last week being interpreted in numerous statewide and national platforms as an example of many of modern society’s ills.

The incident has been described as an example of police being too scared of racism charges to do their jobs; as an illustration of the sinister power of an organized Black Lives Matter movement; and as evidence that inclusivity had run amok and taken a good law enforcement professional down in its wake.

Intertwined with those conclusions were rumors: The officer involved was fired. The black superintendent was on campus the next day in a Black Lives Matter-themed T-shirt to hand out flyers supporting the movement. And the student involved was returned to class and treated as a hero.

“The stories that have gone out have not been balanced stories,” said Kassie Swenson, spokeswoman for Federal Way Public Schools. “Although we’ve provided multiple opportunities to use accurate information, the story has not been balanced. How it’s been written might appeal to a certain perspective… but if it was a balanced perspective it might have a different appeal.”

The facts, available through public records and eyewitness accounts, don’t support the rumors.

Facts in brief

A Beamer student was arrested on campus on Oct. 18 after a struggle with Beamer’s school resource officer. The student in question, a 15-year-old black girl, didn’t initiate contact with the arresting officer, who’s white, but she did strike him – it’s unclear if it was intentional – while he and another officer restrained her.

Beamer’s Black Student Union held an awareness campaign the following Friday, on Oct. 21, but the campaign had been planned well in advance and consisted of wearing black clothing and sporting pro-BLM stickers. The district superintendent, Dr. Tammy Campbell, wasn’t on campus on Oct. 18, 19 or 21, and she doesn’t wear T-shirts when she’s working.

The student at the center of the “controversy” was taken to the police station, is being recommended for resisting arrest and intimidation charges, and is said to feel terrible about what happened. In fact, the arresting officer reported that the girl apologized to him after they spent time at the station, an additional officer noted her apology in his own report, and Federal Way’s chief of police backs up both accounts. So, too, did the girl’s stepmother, who relayed the student’s perspective in an interview with the Mirror.

The rumors appear to stem largely from the accounts of a Todd Beamer freshman who told local talk radio, as well as the Federal Way School Board, that she was harassed and bullied for not taking part in the Oct. 21 campaign. Few at Beamer or at the district’s office doubt that she was harassed by other students, and fewer deny that tensions at Beamer are making learning difficult for some of the school’s students.

Oct. 18

Oct. 18 was not a good day at Todd Beamer High School.

Police records show that, at about 10:15 a.m., Federal Way High School’s school resource officer notified the police department that a student at Todd Beamer may have a gun on campus. Officer John Stray, a 33-year police veteran and a school resource officer for the last 10 years or so, was at the station when the notification came through. Stray was Beamer’s regular SRO, so he, as well as other available officers in the area, headed to Beamer.

Stray and another officer made contact with the student and escorted him, without incident, to the school office. It turned out he didn’t have a gun – he’d made joking comments on social media to the effect that he did and another student had alerted officials – but that situation’s resolution wasn’t known to Stray. Shortly after escorting the student to the office, Stray was “called away for an unrelated fight in the lunch room of the school,” according to his report, and by now around two dozen officers were on-campus to respond to the gun scare.

Stray went to the cafeteria, but the fight had been broken up by school administrators by the time he arrived – a radio communication relayed that the purported instigator had been escorted to the school’s main office. Stray wrote that he checked on the student there, attempted to get a statement, and left with another officer, Lt. Tracy Grossnickle, toward the front of the school.

The radio system sprang to life again. This time, a school official was reporting that the 15-year-old at the center of the theories and analyses, as well as a friend of hers, “were very angry and storming from the front of the school to the counseling area,” Stray wrote. “I saw them walk by Lt. Grossnickle and I and attempted to signal them, but they got by me.”

The two students walking past the officers, as well as the rest of this third incident, was recorded by Beamer security cameras. Footage from the camera with a clear view of the student-police interaction was released to and viewed by the Mirror following a public records request.

10:35 a.m.

Security footage at 10:35, during Beamer’s first lunch period, shows the halls outside the lunch room as fairly empty. A handful of students mostly talk among themselves, and in the center of the hallway stand Beamer Principal Joni Hall, Assistant Principal Aaron Bellessa, and officers Stray and Grossnickle.

Stray and Grossnickle break away and walk toward the entrance to the lunch room. The girls round the corner and walk toward the camera, the 15-year-old with her hands in the pockets of her black hoodie. Stray appears to say something to the pair – the security footage does not have sound – and they indeed stride past both officers.

As the girls try to pass Hall and Bellessa, Bellessa begins walking beside them and talking. Behind the students, apparently unbeknownst to them, Stray walks toward them. The students say nothing to Bellessa.

By now, more students have started filling the hall. The initial handful is up to around 30 kids.

They girls apparently realize Bellessa isn’t going to get out of their way, and the 15-year-old, her hands still in her pockets, becomes visibly angry and starts talking. It’s clearly not polite chatter.

“The gist was, ‘Get out of my way; move out of my way,’” Bellessa said in an interview, describing the girl as “upset and agitated” and hard-to-understand. He says she cursed at him with “the f-word” while otherwise mostly rambling.

The 15-year-old finishes talking, hands still in her pockets, and makes another attempt to go around. Stray, from behind, grabs the girl’s arm and spins her away from Bellessa. The exchange appears orderly and calm at first, but when an approaching Grossnickle enters the 15-year-old’s line of sight, she jumps and the three enter an intense struggle.

Stray and Grossnickle get the 15-year-old to the ground, and additional police officers move in. The throng of students watching the scene unfold is up to about 60. The 15-year-old’s friend charges through a crowd of kids but is grabbed around her collarbone by an officer, and the two move to the side of the hallway. The 15-year-old on the ground, by one staff member’s estimate, ends up pinned by at least four police officers – there’s too much commotion to clearly follow her. The friend is shuffled off-camera and the 15-year-old and the officers on top of her move behind swinging doors, shielding the view from the throng of students.

Reports say the 15-year-old was handcuffed and led off-campus shortly after that. The girl’s stepmother said she received a cut lip, a sore neck and a sore shoulder. Grossnickle reported being kicked in his thigh, his chest and his abdomen and having his eyeglasses broken while she struggled on the ground. Stray reported a sore back and a bruise on his knee.

The student

It is the Mirror’s policy not to identify minors accused of crimes and to not identify family members that may make the minor identifiable.

The 15-year-old, her stepmother said, suffered significant trauma when she was much younger. A result of that is a severe aversion to being touched unexpectedly.

“When he grabbed her, she went into panic mode,” the stepmother said. “She basically blacked out.”

The 15-year-old is aware of her anger issues, the stepmother said. She also has a more nuanced view of the incident than others, accepting responsibility for lashing out while also feeling that the escalation, restraint and arrest were uncalled for.

“She understands she lost control and they stepped in,” the stepmother said. “But I’ll say that she doesn’t feel they were justified in grabbing her or trying to arrest her because she feels like she wasn’t doing anything wrong (before she was grabbed).”

Multiple sources say the girl accepts a large part of the fault. Federal Way Chief of Police Andy Hwang said the teenager brought into the police station became more reasonable after the panic had ended.

“When she had calmed, she actually apologized to the officer for her actions,” Hwang said. “I think the parent and this young lady had a healthy discussion with the officer involved.”

That said, the 15-year-old does not bear any resentment toward the officers and does not feel race was a factor in how the incident unfolded.

“She’s a wonderful, loving girl who’s had a few problems,” her stepmother said. “She’s trying very hard to work through that; to get past that.”

And at this point, for both the 15-year-old and her stepmother, “We’d really like to just move forward.”

The officer

Stray, as noted above, is a 33-year police veteran. He’s spent his last 10 or so years as a school resource officer and the last four or so as Beamer’s.

He’s a dance instructor when he’s not in uniform, and Hwang said he’s previously given dance lessons to the Black Student Union and the Latino Student Union, ultimately inviting retirees from the Village Green retirement community to come in and watch a dance recital.

“When you’re a school resource officer you’re part of the school community,” Hwang said. “One of the things you do as a school resource officer is, you want to mentor. You want to coach. A lot of kids are looking for some guidance. And you have to care about young people. You have to want to help.

“Each year – he didn’t do it last year because he was hurt; he got injured – but he, out of his own expense, barbecues for the football team,” Hwang said. “Another thing, too, each year – just to give you an example of how much impact he’s having with young people and families in our community – he’s constantly been one of the runners-up for ‘Best Cop’ in the Federal Way Mirror. So I’ve got to think he’s having a positive impact with the people in our community. He’s engaged. He’s involved.”

Hwang, as another and very recent example, cited the aftermath of the incident with the 15-year-old Beamer student.

“They clearly had a felony assault on this young lady… but Officer Stray, based on his conversation with the mom and with this young lady, recommended to the lieutenant that he not charge her with a felony and charge her with a misdemeanor offense. And I think the parent acknowledged that and appreciated that.”

Deputy Chief Kyle Sumpter said the most recent is not the only time.

“During the years he’s been an SRO… we’ve had several compliments from parents of students – troubled students – that John has dealt with give thanks after the fact. John sees his role as needing to be firm, because somebody has to be, but he always does so within the rules.”

Sumpter added that recommending the 15-year-old not be charged with a felony is in line with his normal approach to minors who make mistakes.

“John is always looking for alternatives to severe prosecution,” Sumpter said. “There have been several troubled kids who now look up to him; who say thank you. In terms of alternatives he’s had them write letters explaining why they did certain things, and then prosecution is mitigated to some degree.”

The others

Todd Beamer High School is a “majority minority” school, so most of the students there and most of those who watched the incident first-hand likely identified more with the 15-year-old than with the officer.

“It’s been really tough,” said Candice Holder, a guidance support specialist at the school who was maybe 5 feet from the struggle when it happened. “It’s been probably the hardest two weeks of my life. I’d say the students of color are really upset. This mostly happened during freshman lunch, so it’s mostly kids who are 13, 14, maybe 15 – they’re really young. That day in particular I had probably 15 black and brown kids, mostly boys, in my office crying. And my office is not that big.”

The kids, Holder said, wanted clarification and context. From their perspective, the 15-year-old hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t deserve to be arrested.

The police, meanwhile, don’t dispute or even try to clarify the reported chronology of events. The difference in opinion when it comes to the reasonableness of those events, they maintain, comes down to the difference in the roles of the police and school employees.

“We’re sworn to uphold the law, we’re not sworn to uphold school rules,” said Sumpter, the deputy chief.

School resource officers are largely the product of cities and schools reacting to numerous, well-publicized incidences of campus violence in the last 20 or so years.

“The No. 1 role of an SRO is, ‘Be ready to deal with that,’” Sumpter said, referring to school shootings. “Then meanwhile, we build relationships with the students, we barbecue with the team – we do all these other things to establish feelings of trust in tomorrow’s leaders.”

And on Oct. 18, police say, Stray was exactly that: Ready. Having handled two incidences of violence or presumed violence in the last half-hour alone, Stray interpreted the 15-year-old’s anger and determined stride as the prelude to more violence. That the girl had trauma in her past explains her reaction but had no bearing on Stray’s judgment, and that her hands were in her pockets and not ready to throw a punch changes nothing – while the officers are being criticized in this case, the criticism would be much different if the student had been hiding a weapon in her pocket.

“We’re starting to get into the not-so-pretty aspects of a police officer’s job,” Sumpter said, “but human safety is the No. 1 reason a police officer is there.”

“In law enforcement,” Hwang added, “we are going to have, from time to time, issues come up. When you’re responsible for taking people’s civil liberties away or when you’re making arrests or seizures, you’re going to have some differences of opinion. It’s just going to happen in law enforcement.”

According to Hwang, then, given the role of the school resource officer, the heightened tension present at Beamer on Oct. 18, and the minimal time Stray had to make his decision, he made the right one.

“I think the officer is clearly trying to do what he believes is right; to try and assist the school admin to restore order,” Hwang said. “And just from my experience, that level of force – taking the student to the ground, out-muscling and hand-cuffing – seemed very appropriate given the situation.”

Federal Way Public Schools and the Federal Way Police Department have a contract laying out the terms of officers’ presences at local schools. Part of that contract states either the department or the district can request officers be transferred out of a school for a variety of reasons, including for reasons like “compatibility issues.”

After the Oct. 18 incident, Stray was transferred out of Beamer for that reason. He is now a patrol officer.

Next steps

Of the 1,716 students at Beamer, 63.5 percent is non-white, and the Oct. 18 incident did not help what racial tension may have existed prior. Federal Way Public Schools is aware of the tension and is working to cool it.

“Beamer is struggling with a culture and climate issue, and we’re working with the principal to do that,” said Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Campbell.

The school and the district have implemented policies and events they hope will lower the temperature, including:

• Kids can’t get passes and cannot be in the halls during the first or last 10 minutes of class.

• School officials are making sweeps of school restrooms.

• The district held “Titan Talks” between students and officials to give Beamer students the chance to air grievances and express anger, mistrust and frustration through conversations instead of fights.

• Greater adult visibility – more administrators are now on-site at Beamer, and the school has brought in a “safety and security officer” in addition to the school resource officer.

To the last point, Campbell said, “If you look at the video, one of the things that’s obvious is that there are not very many adults – our people aren’t out there. We’ve got police out there, but we really should have more of our staff out there interacting, making and building relationships with scholars.”

This will likely not be the final word in the tales of Oct. 18 at Todd Beamer, and it will almost certainly not be the final incident at a school between police and a student.

Everyone involved, however, is prepared to return to doing their jobs.

“Our role is to keep our community safe,” Hwang said. “And a portion of that is our schools. We can’t keep our schools safe alone and we can’t keep our community safe alone. We need to continue to work with our schools’ administration, our schools’ staff, and we’ve had a long history of having a positive relationship, and I think it’s in the best interest of our children that we continue this relationship. I really think, moving forward, it’s important we continue this.”

Reporter Jerod Young contributed to this report.


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