This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The attorney for Brian Burney, the Ben Franklin High junior shown on a video being restrained by a school police officer, said the student’s family has filed a formal complaint with the Police Advisory Commission, Philadelphia’s civilian watchdog agency over law enforcement.
The officer in question, Jeffrey Maciocha, has been transferred pending the result of the District’s own investigation, according to District spokesman Fernando Gallard.
A short video of the May 5 incident was posted to the Philadelphia Student Union’s Facebook account, along with a description of the altercation. Burney is a member of the student organizing group.
Meanwhile, the state auditor general’s performance audit, released Wednesday, found that the District failed to conduct full and timely background checks on some of its school police officers and did not always provide sufficient training.
The Police Advisory Commission is empowered to investigate citizen complaints of police misconduct. Michael Coard, Burney’s lawyer, said that the family is awaiting the result of the investigation before deciding whether to pursue further legal action.
The incident occurred when Burney attempted to use a third-floor bathroom at the school and was stopped by the officer, who told him he needed a specific pass to use that restroom.
According to the student union’s account, Burney, who has a medical history of asthma, began to argue with the officer. The PSU account says that Burney grew frustrated and threw the orange he was holding at the wall. The District maintains that the orange was thrown at the officer.
The student union’s Facebook post says: “The cop retaliated by punching him twice in the face, slamming him down and began choking him. Many students gathered around and yelled at the officer to get off of Brian.”
In the video, Burney is already on the ground and the officer is on top of him. The officer is holding Burney down, and the outraged cries from other students are audible in the background.
The video does not provide evidence one way or the other of the allegations that Maciocha punched Burney and slammed him to the ground with excessive force. Coard, however, says that photos from the nurse’s office do support the student’s version of what happened.
Coard said Burney was immediately sent to the nurse and “given ice for his face and head because his face was swollen.” Two days later, Burney’s family took him to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia after he was experiencing “headaches, lightheadedness, and dizziness,” potentially the result of a concussion.
Gallard said Burney cursed and called the officer names.
Coard said the officer’s conduct was beyond unprofessional.
“Here’s a kid acting like a kid. Instead of de-escalating the situation, [the officer] rushed the kid, punches the kid in the face, knocks the kid down.”
Gallard said the bruises and swelling on Burney’s face resulted after the student, while being restrained on the ground, began “voluntarily” banging his head against the floor. The short video shows Burney being restrained on the ground, but does not show him making any attempt to injure himself, while in the background bystanders can be heard saying, “He’s not even resisting.”
Gallard said it was the school’s assistant principal who saw Burney banging his head against the ground.
Burney and the student who filmed the video have accused an unnamed “school official” – presumably the assistant principal – of taking the phone and deleting the video. Coard said the student was able to download a copy of the video after it was deleted, because he also saved it to a cloud storage system.
“It’s interesting that any school official would want to destroy potential evidence,” said Coard. “I think there was some stuff that was quite telling and incriminating about the officer’s conduct.”
The student union’s Facebook post also makes a broad statement about the context for this incident:
“The deprivation of basic needs is, in fact, a violent act. Policing students’ bodies and right to use the restroom is a violent act. The young people of Philadelphia have been experiencing this type of violence for decades. Police in schools are the by-product of decades of disinvestment by the state coupled with the racist notion that the only way to ‘control’ young people of color is to criminalize and arrest them.”
Coard said that if the police neglect to punish the officer, the Burney family has a strong civil case.
The case centers on where the student was aiming the orange he threw.
The officer justified his actions by saying the orange was thrown at him. Coard says, however, that “our position is that the child never threw the orange at the officer. It was thrown at the wall in anger and frustration.”
Coard says the school report states it was “thrown in the direction of the officer.” He said that it’s classified as a simple assault to throw an object at anyone and that when an object is thrown at a law enforcement officer, it automatically becomes felony aggravated assault.
The school has not pressed charges against Burney.
“The child wasn’t arrested — it’s curious,” Coard said. “He wasn’t charged with anything, because he didn’t do anything criminal.”
The student union’s Facebook post says that “Brian’s mother and uncle were harassed and disrespected by school police officers” upon entering the school after having filed the complaint.
“The Philadelphia Student Union demands the firing of the Officer Jeffrey Maciocha, as well as a complete overhaul of school police training,” the student union states at the end of its post. “We demand a significant reduction of police in schools, with a redirection of funding towards student services that have been shown to be effective: resources such as counselors, nurses, restorative justice, and whole systems that support student’ lives.”
“If Brian had done to that officer what he did to Brian,” Coard said, “he would be facing criminal charges.”