This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Overshadowed by the news of South Philadelphia High School has been the continuing controversy about an incident in which a Frankford High School student has alleged he was beaten by two District security officers who were on truancy detail. The issue was aired before the School Reform Commission for the first time this week.
Jeffione Thomas, a star running back on the Frankford football team, was late for school on Oct. 29 when he sustained injuries to his face in a scuffle with two officers. Thomas said that he rebuffed the officers when they tried to get him into a truancy van and went into the school instead. The officers followed him and the altercation was caught on school surveillance cameras.
Footage of the altercation starts at 1:30 on this video
Thomas was charged with assault, but he says the officers beat him. He told a rally on his behalf on December 14: "I was kind of late (about 9:45 a.m.) The truancy officers stopped me and told me to stop walking and give them my ID. I said no. I kept walking to school. They came into the school and started beating me up."
At least one witness has backed up his account and the school’s athletic director wrote an email to District officials calling the officers’ behavior uncalled for.
"I was calling for our security guards to get them off of you," student Denzel Parker-Dickson said at the rally. An ROTC student, Parker-Dickson said he was asked by school police based in the school to help pull the truancy officers off Thomas.
About 30 parents and students attended the rally, organized by Gregory Brinkley, local head of the National Action Network, an organization affiliated with Rev. Al Sharpton. Brinkley called for the district attorney to drop nine charges against Thomas, including resisting arrest, simple assault, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. He also called for an independent investigator to look into it, and complained that the District had not reached out to Thomas’s family.
Brinkley brought his complaints to the SRC meeting December 16. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said that the incident was under investigation and that "appropriate" action would be taken. She said the investigation would take about six weeks, and that "there has been outreach to the family."
Brinkley was also demanding an investigation of Sgt. Robert Samuels, accused by several students at Olney High School of excessive force and by one of getting ready to attack him while wearing boxing gloves. But Ackerman said that the District had already cleared Samuels, who was transferred to South Philly because he speaks Cantonese — he’s a martial arts expert and spent several years in Hong Kong working on films.
"I talked to principals, I talked to staff members, and they spoke highly of him," Ackerman said. "The principal at Olney was sorry to see him go."
These incidents — along with the trouble at South Philly — bring up the issue of how District police and other security officials are trained and supervised. (The truancy officers, explained spokesman Fernando Gallard, are school police who have been given that assignment.)
Asian students spoke painfully the week before about how some school staff stood by while they were attacked, but also how they insulted them and called them names. If one accepts the view of those students that the South Philly problems are about the "failure of adults" and not just about the behavior of students, this question takes on new urgency.
Thomas, who was 17 when the incident happened but has since turned 18, has a hearing scheduled for January 22 in juvenile court. It was already postponed once.
He enrolled in Frankford after spending time in Glen Mills, a residential school for delinquent youth, and said at the rally that he told the truancy officers that he had been "locked up" for assaulting a cop. He, his family and his supporters at Frankford say he is working hard to turn his life around and wants to play football in college.
"Half the school" came to support her son when he was in the hospital, Thomas’s mother Sharonda Dobry said at the rally. "I just think that people who have authority like that and abuse their authority…. Nobody should be beat like that. My son changed his whole life around. He did time. He went to Glen Mills. He’s a valuable athlete, he runs track and is a football player. I’m glad people have come out to support him."
Brinkley said the group is planning another protest on Monday December 21, marching from Broad and Erie to District headquarters near Broad and Spring Garden.