Phoenix School Investigating Officer's Use of Pepper Spray, Handcuffs on Students

Maxima Guerrero, 29, youth campaign organizer at Puente Human Rights Movement, speaking at a press conference outside Isaac Middle School on Tuesday, October 29.
Maxima Guerrero, 29, youth campaign organizer at Puente Human Rights Movement, speaking at a press conference outside Isaac Middle School on Tuesday, October 29. Hannah Critchfield

Officials at Isaac School District in Phoenix have confirmed they're conducting internal investigations following allegations that a school resource officer inappropriately used force on students.

District and police department officials dispute the idea that the officer did anything wrong.

The allegations by students activist groups stem from two incidents at Isaac Middle School within a week, both involving the same officer.  The first occurred on October 15, when he pepper-sprayed a group of students to break up a fight. In the second, a week later, he handcuffed an 11-year-old girl as he escorted her to the administrative office after a fight.

The critics of the police actions said chemical weapons should never be used to break up a fight among students, and that temporarily putting the girl in handcuffs constituted inappropriate enforcement. Police said no protocol violations occurred in the incidents, and school officials claim the activist groups put out incorrect facts regarding the incidents.

Concerned students, as well as several civil rights organizations, claim the school resource officer’s actions have created an unsafe learning environment for young people on the campus.

The coalition, which includes organizers from Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), Poder in Action, and Puente Human Rights Movement, held a press conference on Tuesday morning outside the middle school, alleging that Officer Philip Vavrinec "gave no warning" before pepper-spraying "at least two dozen" students, and did not contact parents after the incident.

Several students who were not affiliated with the group made similar statements.

“Why the H-E-double-hockey-sticks would he spray the little girls with pepper spray?” said Demetrius Chapman, 12, a student at Isaac Middle School who was walking into the building and not associated with the press conference. He said he and his friend Alejandro Sariano, also 12, were present when the pepper spray was deployed during the first fight.

“I got pepper sprayed too,” Sariano said. “It hit a lot of kids.”

They and their friends Britney Munoz, 13, and Zahory Santianus, 14, who were also present, said they’d never seen pepper spray used to break up fights at their school before.

“That never happened, until probably this semester,” Sariano said. “Cause last semester there was a whole bunch of fights, but nobody fucking did anything.”

The coalition, which previously shared YouTube videos of the incidents, are asking for the officer's termination, as well as transparency about the findings of the investigations. But it isn’t just that they want this officer removed: They want to school to do away with their use of school resource officers entirely.

“What we have here is an extension of police violence from the most violent police force in the country,” Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, said at the conference. “The Phoenix police department has a history of not knowing how to handle these situations, of escalating them. These kinds of responses fuel the school-to-prison-pipeline.”

Through conversations with students, the migrant justice organizations identified the officer as Vavrinec. Isaac School District's website also lists their school resource officer as Vavrinec.

The district does not comment on ongoing investigations, but nevertheless pushed back on the critics' claims.

"We have been made aware of the allegations made by the Puente Human Rights Movement," James Milam of Isaac School District said in an emailed statement. "Unfortunately, their statements do not accurately portray all the facts, as to date we have not received any requests for comment or information from them."

Lucy Sandoval of Puente said that they did not contact the school for comment because students asked them not to.

"Furthermore, we have been receiving messages of support from parents and community members in favor of School Resource Officers," Milam said. "These residents are concerned that these organizations could be successful in misrepresenting the opinions of the majority of parents and the community." Milam did not elaborate on which facts Puente did not accurately portray, or provide the messages of support.

Isaac's policy allows school resource officers to "respond to situations that present the imminent danger of bodily harm according to protocols established by their law enforcement agency." Phoenix Police Department said that the proper protocol was followed, according to Milam, and the department is not investigating the officer.

For the organizers, the incidents go beyond an issue of correct protocol, and into a concern of the use of police in schools in general. The call is consistent with Puente’s ongoing campaign over the last few years, titled “#CopsOuttaCampus:” Not only should the officer be removed, they said, but he should not be replaced by a new officer either.

click to enlarge
Two videos in one week show a school resource officer at Isaac Middle School using force against students. Some students, as well as a group of civil rights organizations, are asking for his removal.
The group asked Isaac Middle School to end its contract with school resource officers and instead use their Safe Arizona Schools funding, which they said is currently used to employ the officer, to hire more counselors equipped in nonviolent de-escalation tactics to break up fights on campus.

Phoenix police Sergeant Tommy Thompson confirmed that the two incidents had occurred.

"There were no known complaints of the limited exposure to the OC spray," he said regarding the release of pepper spray in the first.

About the second, Thompson said the resource officer "handcuffed her to keep the incident from escalating any further." When she later calmed down in the administrative office, he removed the handcuffs — she was restrained for a total of 10 minutes, he said. The resource officer investigated the incident, and "charges will be submitted," against the sixth grader, who was released to her family.

Puente said they first heard about the incidents from a student group dedicated to promoting ethnic studies within the school, which they declined to name, stating that the group's members worried they would get in trouble. The event’s press release had mentioned the school resource officer’s actions affecting faculty. When asked, the group said they were in touch with a concerned teacher, but declined to name her, saying that doing so might endanger the faculty member's position at the school. The teacher did not respond to Phoenix New Times after the group passed a request to speak to her.

"School resource officers are not the only form of safety," said Maxima Guerrero, youth campaign organizer at Puente. "If the school had real resources, the students would not be more afraid after incidents like these."
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.