Taser incident overshadows school milestone

by Jim Longworth

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Friday, Jan. 13 was the best of times, and it was also the worst of times for East Forsyth High School. On that day, the Winston-Salem Journal was poised to run a big spread on the school’s 50th anniversary celebration which had taken place the night before. On that Thursday evening, hundreds of students and alumni showed up at Eagles Stadium and were treated to doughnuts, coffee and a performance by the marching band. Truly the best of times. But I had to search through the Journal last Friday to find that feel-good story because it was dwarfed by coverage of another East Forsyth event.

Earlier in the week, two male students had engaged in fisticuffs on the school courtyard, and the fight was halted when School Resource Officer James Deeney Tasered one of the combatants. By Thursday, a cell-phone video of the incident had surfaced and gone viral on the internet, and by Friday morning the story had grown into a multimedia, headline-grabbing debate over the use of Tasers in schools. Truly the worst of times.

The Taser was used on 17-year-old Chris Bloom, who was fighting with his cousin Ivan Smith. Bloom later told police that Smith had insulted him, and that he (Bloom) had no intention of stopping the fight even after being warned by Officer Deeney that a Taser shot was imminent. One eyewitness told Journal reporters John Hinton and Travis Fain that the two students were just “play fighting.” But SRO Deeney saw it differently, and stepped in to stop what he thought was a dangerous situation.

In a press conference on Thursday, Kernersville Police Chief Ken Gamble defended Deeney’s actions, pointing out that had his officer just stood by and done nothing, and someone had been seriously injured, then parents would have blamed police for not taking a hand. It was a loselose situation for Deeney, who has been an exemplary SRO. According to Gamble, officer Deeney breaks up approximately 60 fights per year at East Forsyth, and only twice has he used his Taser.

Nevertheless, Wayne Patterson, President of the Winston-Salem NAACP called Deeney’s use of a Taser on Bloom “outrageous.” That somewhat echoes a sentiment by Amnesty International’s Joshua Rubenstein who in May of 2010 told AOL News that use of Tasers on students “is just excessive force, almost like torturing someone.” And while authorities say Tasers are safe, Rubenstein claimed that “more and more people have been dying following an encounter with electroshock guns.” Amnesty International hasn’t provided any hard data to back up that claim, but the ACLU says that since 1999, at least 148 people in Canada and the United States have died after being shocked with a Taser by police officers. On the other hand, Taser CEO Rick Smith says that according to police surveys, his product has saved 75,000 lives. And, according to a 2009 study by the Police Executive Research Forum, injuries to officers drop by 76 percent when a Taser is used. Moreover, Tasers could actually be preventing serious injury to students. In fact, the National School Safety and Security Services association calls the use of Tasers a “useful tool in situations… where no other intervention beyond the use of a firearm is an option.”

No doubt the debate about use of Tasers in schools will continue to rage on throughout the nation, but perhaps we should be more concerned with why so many fights occur at local high schools. If Gamble’s figures are accurate and East Forsyth is the venue for more than 60 fights per year, and if you consider that students are in school for nine months per year, that means at least seven fights break out at East Forsyth every month in which the SRO has to intercede.

 When I was attending RJ Reynolds High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I can’t recall more than a handful of skirmishes taking place over a four-year period, and we were, at the time, the district’s most populated and most culturally diverse high school. So why the increased violence today? Why the escalating number of fist fights at East Forsyth? And what can be done to halt this disturbing trend? Ironically, as school and public safety officials search for answers and solutions, East Forsyth alumni are hard at work planning to unveil a 50th anniversary Hall of Fame ceremony for outstanding graduates. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)