Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South.
UPDATE, JANUARY 4, 2018: Scott Williams, the special agent in charge for the Northern Piedmont District of the State Bureau of Investigation, said he received notice from District Attorney Andy Gregson on Dec. 22 that he does not intend to charge Sergeant Michael Hogan. Williams said the district attorney determined that Hogan's actions were "within the law."
Connsuela Bautista, a 13-year-old student at North Carolina's Southeastern Randolph County Middle School, was walking to her first class one day in late September when the principal stopped her and asked her to come to the office.
When she spotted sheriffs deputies waiting for her at the office, by her own admission, Connsuela began to curse; "Fuck you… fuck you all… get the fuck off me, nigga" were the words she used according to a juvenile petition filed by the sheriff's office. Connsuela took out her phone and called her brother. The deputies were angry and one of them snatched away her phone. The sheriff's office also alleges in a separate petition for resisting, delaying, and obstructing an officer that Connsuela ignored the deputies and tried to walk away.
According to Connsuela, that's when two deputies grabbed her and slammed her up against a wall. Then they hustled her outside. She said the deputies were stepping on her toes as they took her to the parking lot, and she turned and spat. The sheriff's office alleges the spit was directed at Sergeant Michael Hogan, a deputy assigned to the school resource division.
"He smacked me, and I kind of leaned over," Connsuela recalled. "He pushed my head to the ground. He put his knee in my back, and another officer was holding down my legs. I said, 'I can't breathe.'"
Connsuela's arrest highlights longstanding concerns about the criminalization of Black and brown youth in Randolph County, a geographically large, rural county south of Greensboro, compounded by new worries about a climate of intensifying racial hostility in the 12 months since Donald Trump was elected president.
A photo taken shortly after the Sept. 26 incident shows a garish-red, fist-sized welt below Connsuela's left eye and quarter-sized mark on her cheek just above her jawline. A medical record signed by Dr. Renuka Harsh with Randolph Health confirms that Connsuela was seen for an abrasion and a contusion.
Sherritta Bautista, Connsuela's mother, recalled that as she drove to the hospital, her daughter told her, "Mama, it felt like he punched me."
The Randolph County Sheriff's Office, which declined to comment for this story, requested that the State Bureau of Investigation look into the matter. The agency has completed interviews, including with Connsuela and her mother, for a criminal investigation of Sergeant Hogan's handling of the arrest based on an excessive force complaint filed by Sherritta. Special-Agent-in-Charge Scott Williams, who heads the Northern Piedmont District, said on Monday that the agency is finalizing a report on the investigation, which will be turned over its report to District Attorney Andy Gregson to determine if criminal charges against Hogan are warranted. A previous media report indicated that Hogan had been placed on administrative duty, but the county has declined requests by Scalawag to provide his current status.
"The way they messed up her face, it's not necessary to slap her and drag her around," said Connsuela's grandmother, Dellayno Del Vecchio. "Are you telling me a 46-year-old man has to do this to a little 13-year-old girl?"
African Americans make up only 3.8 percent of the student population of the Randolph County School System, but accounted for 26.8 percent of juvenile complaints filed in the county in 2016—a staggering seven-fold differential. Hispanic students are close to parity, with 15.5 percent of referrals to the juvenile justice system and 17.4 percent of the population.
"It shows you how a police officer can look at a little 13-year-old girl differently because of her race," said Donald Matthews, president of the Randolph County NAACP. "We don't know how many students in Randolph County have been accosted, roughed up, expelled and mistreated because a lot of these things go unreported because these kids and parents are scared of the repercussions."
The disproportionate shunting of Black youth into the court system reflects a similar pattern in school discipline and academic performance. According to preliminary and incomplete data provided by the Randolph County School System, Black students accounted for 9.6 percent of all in-school suspensions and 10.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions in the 2016-2017 school year. And the district data indicates only 26.6 percent of Black students and 35.7 percent of Hispanic students met "college and career proficiency" benchmarks, compared to 46.0 percent of the overall student population.
Connsuela's family is a richly constituted mix that sometimes confounds their majority white neighbors in Randolph County while also exposing them to prejudices against both of the most significant minority groups—African Americans and Latinx.
"We have all different colors in our family," Connsuela observed. "Some of us don't believe we're kin because some are Black and some are lighter."
Dellayno, Connsuela's grandmother, claims Black heritage from her mother's side, and Apache and Cherokee lineage from her father. Her husband is Italian and Irish. Connsuela's father is Latinx. Looking over the court papers, Sherritta observed with disapproval that the juvenile petitions identify Connsuela as Hispanic. Dellayno said that both she and her white husband encountered school employees who didn't believe Sherritta was their daughter when they went to pick her up from school.
Connsuela has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and Sherritta said as part of her daughter's individual education plan—a deal worked out with school staff for students with learning disabilities—when Connsuela got upset she would go to a quiet place by herself until she calmed down.
Eighteen months ago, Connsuela's father burned down their house. Sherritta said her husband had been angry about her refusal to allow a mistress to move into the house, and that he tied her and their 17-month-old son to a bed, poured gasoline on the floor and set the house on fire. She was able to escape after calling neighbors for help. Pedro Bautista was charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and arson. Sherritta said Connsuela and her father were close, practically "best friends," and she said many of her daughter's behavioral challenges emerged after her father's betrayal of the family.
Connsuela had faced her share of disciplinary problems in the months leading up to her Sept. 26 arrest, and she said she had been detained by sheriff's deputies, including Sergeant Hogan, on school grounds more than once before. Sherritta said Hogan told Connsuela's doctor that she is a gang member because she frequently wears red clothing—an accusation Connsuela denies. The doctor told Connsuela to keep wearing red if she likes the color.
Many see this as part of a broader problem in Randolph County and the United States. Racial slurs directed at Black and Latinx students are a common occurrence, according to Connsuela and her grandmother, who has other grandchildren in the Randolph County School System.
"When I try to tell them I'm Black, they say I'm Mexican," Connsuela said, adding that students of color are routinely subjected to racial epithets like "water nigger" and "nigger lover."
Even class discussion can become fraught with racial tension. Connsuela said during a discussion of President Trump's policy of accelerating the deportation of undocumented immigrants, she asked, "How come the white people don't have a fence around them?" She said her teacher responded, "We could build a fence around you."
Like the two local NAACP officials, Dellayno Del Vecchio said she sees evidence that longstanding racial hostility in Randolph County has become amplified under President Trump.
"The white students are using racial slurs," she said. "It's got worse since Trump got into office. He wants to carry us back to slavery. 'Nigger this, nigger that.' That ain't gonna cut it."
Aside from the question of whether a 46-year-old deputy striking a 13-year-old girl can be considered reasonable force, it's not clear why the sheriff's office had to make an arrest on school grounds in the first place.
A juvenile petition charging Connsuela with assault inflicting serious injury accuses her of "burning a belt buckle and then pressing the hot belt buckle against" the forearm of another student at the end of school the day before her arrest. Connsuela denies the assault charge, contending that she and a friend were playing with her belt, and the belt "poked" the other student. Sherritta Bautista believes the other child's parents complained to the principal, prompting her to call in a request for service to the sheriff's office.
The Randolph County School System's policy on school relationships with law enforcement specifically discourages making arrests on school grounds.
"The principal should request the officer make his/her arrest at another time and not on school grounds," the policy reads.
Gail Powers, the principal for Southeastern Randolph Middle School, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Scalawag. Tim Moody, the district's public information officer, said there was little if anything Powers would be able to say about the matter. Superintendent Stephen Gainey also did not respond to requests for comment.
Sherritta said she would like to know why Powers didn't contact her when her daughter's alleged assault occurred and ask her to come in to discuss the matter. In fact, she said the only way she learned about her daughter's arrest was because her son called her and told she should head over to the school as soon as possible.
While district policy is silent on whether parents should be notified before their child is arrested, it takes care to protect students' rights against self-incrimination.
The policy holds that if a law enforcement officer wants to question a student "on school grounds, the principal should inform the parent/guardian that law enforcement wishes to interview the child, except in cases of suspected child abuse or child neglect involving the parent/guardian. The parent/guardian should be given an opportunity to come to the school prior to questioning."
As the father of two children in the Randolph County School System and vice president of the Randolph County NAACP, Clyde Foust Jr. said his primary concern with Connsuela's arrest is that the seamless integration of the school and court system effectively makes the principal a witness for the state.
"If the school decides your child is involved in a disciplinary action, the first thing the child should say is they would like to have their parents in the room," Foust said. "The child was never read her rights. If the principal was talking to the child, the principal would ask your side and the other child's side. They're giving up their right to not incriminate themselves. Then the principal can turn into a witness for the state."
A recent report by the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice found that the number of law enforcement officers patrolling North Carolina public schools on a full-time basis—called "school resource officers" or SROs—has tripled over the past two decades. The vast majority of school districts place no limitations on whether and when SROs or school staff may interrogate, arrest or file complaints against students.
Schools in the Randolph County system are supposed to have a "written understanding" with local law enforcement agencies specifying the "duties" of SROs, according to district policy, but Moody said there is no such memorandum of understanding between Southeastern Randolph Middle School and the Randolph County Sheriff's Office.
"They're setting these kids up for failure," said Dexter Trogdon Jr., a bail bond agent in Asheboro—the county seat—who is Sherritta Bautista's first cousin. "Before they even get out of high school, they get a record. I don't agree with that. I don't agree with police officer in the schools. Most of the time it's small stuff that the principal could deal with. We don't need police presence in school every day."
Trogdon said he encountered the over-policing of students when he worked previously as a substitute teacher and coach at Asheboro High School and Eastern Randolph High School, and now he sees the consequences as a bail bond agent. Trogdon said one overzealous assistant principal he worked with was pushed out, but the school eventually reverted to its old pattern.
"We had an assistant principal who dwelled on putting kids in handcuffs, arresting them for minor things," Trogdon recalled. "There was no intervention to save these kids. If they did anything, they would run them out. These kids who aren't in school are out in our society committing crimes, and then judge sets a bond. Then I've got to go bail them out."
The Youth Justice Project characterizes the juvenile system as "a dumping ground for North Carolina's public school students." Of the 12,303 North Carolina children under the age of 16 who face juvenile complaints, more than 60 percent, or 5,655 "ended up going to juvenile court to face potentially life-altering prosecution. A large percentage of those who went to court became further entangled in the juvenile system—detained prior to and after their hearings; adjudicated delinquent and placed on supervised probation; or committed to a so-called 'Youth Development Center' for a term that may last for years."
Since Connsuela's Sept. 26 arrest, Sherritta said her daughter refused to go back to school because she felt both embarrassed and vulnerable. She's currently receiving homeschooling from Sherritta's aunt, a retired teacher who previously worked in the Randolph County School System. Connsuela said since she's started homeschooling she's been able to grasp root numbers, and finds it easier to get her work done without distractions from other students.
"It's been amazing how much support I've gotten to help Connsuela since this happened," Sherritta said. "Our family sticks together."
"That's why they don't like us," Connsuela said.