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caption: Angel Graves, a student and family advocate in Seattle Public Schools, stands for a portrait on June 23, 2020.
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Angel Graves, a student and family advocate in Seattle Public Schools, stands for a portrait on June 23, 2020.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

'I can't breathe': A 2nd-grader. A security guard. A Seattle school.

The Seattle School Board has voted to suspend the placement of police in schools, a move prompted by calls to address police brutality, especially against Black people and children.

Security guards, however, far outnumber cops in Seattle schools.

Some say the district should also reexamine the way it uses security guards to police student behavior — even in the youngest grades.

I

t was March, days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Seattle schools, and Renée, a second-grader, sat watching videos on a computer in the main office at Stevens Elementary School on Capitol Hill.

This girl often wandered the halls, said Angel Graves, a student and family advocate at Stevens. So when Graves arrived at work that day, she wasn’t surprised to see Renée out of class.

But then Graves heard the child scream.

“Stop, stop, you’re hurting me!” Renée screamed. “Let me go, you’re hurting me! I can’t breathe!”

Graves said she rushed out and saw a school district security guard she didn’t recognize with his knee pushing against 7-year-old Renée’s back. The guard, David Raybern, is white. Renée is Black.

“The guy was smashing her face against the wall, her body against the wall,” Graves said.

Raybern “had his right forearm across her neck,” wrote Principal John Hughes, who witnessed the incident, in a report to the district.

When Renée said she couldn’t breathe, the security guard said ‘Stop resisting and I will let you go,’” Principal Hughes wrote in his report. The security guard said this several times, Hughes wrote.

State law bars school staff from using restraint techniques that restrict a child’s breathing.

Graves said she demanded to know what Raybern was doing.

“I don’t know if he loosened up or whatever, but Renée fell to the ground,” Graves said, then tried to crawl to her.

Raybern then grabbed the second-grader by the leg and pulled her across the floor. “Then he got on top of her back again, and he had his knee in her back and trying to hold her arms,” Graves said.

“I said, ‘Get off her! Get off of her right now!” Graves said. Graves said Raybern climbed off of Renée, who ran into her arms. “This little girl grabbed my waist so tight. I mean, it was just crazy. It was almost like I just saved her life,” Graves said.

“She was crying, crying, and I just hugged her and I said, ‘Babe, I got you,” Graves said. “I'm not gonna let nobody hurt you.”

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ongoing protests across the nation have called to mind enduring questions about school policing. After numerous online petitions called on Seattle Schools to remove the five police officers it has stationed in school buildings, the school board voted to remove the police indefinitely while the district re-evaluates the program.

Security guards, however, play a much larger role in policing student behavior in schools.

Seattle Public Schools has 46 security guards stationed at middle and high schools. When elementary schools want immediate assistance to deal with a discipline issue, the district dispatches one or more of its six division tactical specialists based at its central office. David Raybern is one of them.

Hughes, who had recently taken over as principal at Stevens, reported that he had called for a guard to be sent that morning to help him with discipline. Hughes said Renée repeatedly hit and kicked him earlier that morning, scratched him and drew blood, and had tried to hit him with a flag and a walkie-talkie.

Seattle Public Schools has placed Raybern on leave pending an investigation. He did not reply to multiple requests for comment for this story.

After the incident that morning, Graves took Renée to her office until Renée’s grandmother picked her up. Graves then called her supervisor to report what had happened — and broke down in tears.

“I couldn't believe it, you know. I never in my life would imagine to have witnessed something like that in the school setting, with no 7-year-old little girl and a grown man.”

Graves said Renée had lashed out at school staff before — including at her once. “But I didn’t lay hands on the child,” Graves said. “You just don’t do that.”

The next day, Graves said, she went to the district’s human resources department.

“I said ‘I’m not reporting to work today. I’m reporting to you.’” Graves refused to return to Stevens given what she had witnessed.

READ: Earlier stories from KUOW's series about abuse in Seattle Public Schools.

Superintendent Denise Juneau declined multiple requests for an interview about the Stevens incident, but issued a written statement.

“I want the security specialist and anyone who put this child at risk held responsible and out of our schools. The allegations are egregious and inexcusable,” Juneau wrote. “I am outraged and will do everything I can to protect this child, their family, and all our students.”

Those words ring hollow to Renée’s mother, Cinetra, who said she has yet to hear anything of that nature from the district.

“You can send this to a media outlet but never once contact a parent,” Cinetra said.

KUOW is identifying Renée and Cinetra by their middle names to protect the child’s privacy.

Cinetra said the day of the incident with the security guard, the principal called her to pick up her daughter, and said she was being suspended for the day. The principal did not mention the alleged assault by the security guard, or even that a security guard had been called, Cinetra said — she only learned of that from Graves and her daughter that evening.

State law requires school administrators to report suspected abuse of a child to law enforcement. Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson declined to answer whether Principal Hughes contacted the police about the incident. Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.

Cinetra said the day after the incident, Renée complained that her body hurt all over. Cinetra said she took her daughter to the pediatrician, who immediately called the police when they heard what had happened at school.

Cinetra did not hear from a district investigator until June, she said, more than three months after the alleged abuse — and one week after KUOW contacted the district about the incident.

Renée “has been traumatized by this,” Cinetra said. “And then Covid happens. So she hasn't been able to even get to a counselor to actually talk about this.”

Renée changed schools after the incident.

Although security guards act as “de-facto” police in schools, said Kendrick Washington, the youth policy counsel for the ACLU of Washington, “Often they have even less training than police officers.”

The district did not respond to a request for the training requirements for its security guards.

Even when training is required of district security guards, they do not always comply.

District records show that David Raybern did not take take the online child abuse prevention training that is required annually for all district employees.

Raybern is not alone: out of 53 district security guards and managers, only 10 completed the required child abuse prevention training this past school year.

How schools use security guards is a matter of racial equity, said Washington, who was previously a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education.

“School interactions with police and security guards, particularly the ones that lead to arrest or the sort of abusive behavior [alleged at Stevens Elementary], fall extremely disproportionately on children of color,” Washington said. “Most of those children are Black, and it's trended Black females more than anyone.”

In Seattle, the district had police officers stationed at five schools in Central and South Seattle, all with large percentages of Black students: South Shore PK-8, Aki Kurose, Denny, and Washington Middle Schools, and Garfield High School.

District spokesperson Tim Robinson declined to answer KUOW's questions about the number of past complaints regarding district security guards, citing the open investigation into Raybern’s actions at Stevens.

As districts like Seattle examine their relationships with police, Washington said, they should also reconsider how they use security guards in dealing with students.

For parents, Washington said, “The perception is ‘Oh, security is there, my kids are going to be safer.’ But the reality is, most of the time, just like with the regular police, [security guards] are a reactionary force. They arrive after whatever harm has been caused to then deal with the aftermath.”

Student and family advocate Angel Graves said that’s what happened with Renée at Stevens.

By the time the tactical specialist arrived, Graves said, “Everything was calm. Renée had a calm body,” and was sitting calmly at the computer. Graves questions how, moments later, Renée ended up pinned against the wall, screaming that she couldn’t breathe.

Graves knew Renée well, and her office was where Renée often ended up when she left the classroom or got in trouble. “Common sense would say, if you know I have a relationship with the little girl, before you have anybody that don't know her come up at her, have somebody present that has a relationship with her,” Graves said.

Why, she asked, would the principal call district security for a 7-year-old?

Seattle Public Schools spent an estimated $3.2 million on security guards this past school year. Some question whether at least some of that money would not have been better spent on counselors, psychologists, or others trained to approach behavior problems holistically, rather than punitively.

“You know, school days are long,” Washington said. “Teachers are being asked to deal with a plethora of issues and traumas that come in the door with their school population. But the solution thus far has been to hire police officers and security guards. And we've got 30 years of evidence that that's not helping.”

For Graves, the police killing of George Floyd — who, with a knee crushing his neck, had cried out that he couldn’t breathe — brought back her anguish about what she saw happen to young Renée.

As Renée screamed, Graves said, the security guard “was continuing on, the [principal] standing there and saying nothing.” What, Graves asks, would have happened if she had not intervened?

“I cry all the time,” Graves said, remembering what happened.

“The baby said ‘I can’t breathe.”

Do you know about verbal, physical or sexual abuse of students in public or private schools? We’d like to hear your story. Contact Ann Dornfeld at adornfeld@kuow.org or (206) 221-7082.