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caption: Stevens Elementary School in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
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Stevens Elementary School in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

Seattle school security guard fired for restraining second-grader, as she screamed ‘I can’t breathe’

Seattle Public Schools has fired a security guard after finding he improperly used physical force against a 7-year-old student at Stevens Elementary School, then lied about the incident to district investigators.

The girl’s mother, Cinetra, said she broke down at work when she read the district’s investigation report.

“It made me think of all the [police brutality] situations that have happened just out in the world. And that could have happened to my daughter, she could have died,” said Cinetra, who is being identifying by her middle name to protect her family’s privacy.

Cinetra said she hates to think what could have happened if another school staffer had not intervened and yelled at the guard to get off her daughter, who is being identified here by her middle name, Renee.

A district investigation found that the guard, David Raybern, physically restrained Renee twice: Once, when she was not an imminent threat, and a second time, against protocol because she was already lying on the floor.

The interim school principal, John Hughes, and the school’s student and family advocate Angel Graves both reported hearing Renee scream that she could not breathe as Raybern restrained her. According to the district investigator, Raybern denied hearing that. He claimed the girl had tried to stab him with a mechanical pencil, which no one else witnessed, and said he never climbed on top of her when she was on the floor, as reported.

Graves said Raybern used his knee to pin Renee first to the wall, then to the floor. Hughes said Raybern used first his thigh, then his shin on her back. Erin Romanuk, who oversees discipline for the district, told the investigator that guards are trained that legs should never be placed on students "due to the risk of death."

In a disciplinary letter, district human resources chief Clover Codd accused Raybern of lying about how the situation unfolded, and said he “intentionally provided false information” during the investigation.

“Such an improper use of force by a Tactical Specialist against a second-grade student shows poor judgement, is dangerous and traumatic to the student, undermines trust and a positive school environment, and simply cannot be tolerated,” Codd told Raybern in his termination letter. Raybern did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The March incident has drawn additional attention from families and staff because Raybern is white, and the girl is Black.

“This, unfortunately, is startlingly familiar,” said Kendrick Washington, the youth policy counsel for the ACLU of Washington. “A police officer, or a security guard, does something to harm a young person of color. And then in defense of their behavior, they try to create a scenario in which the person of color was seen as some form of an imminent threat.”

Cinetra questioned why Hughes, the principal, turned to security, rather than to Graves when her daughter was acting out that morning — and why he did not intervene when Raybern improperly restrained her daughter.

Washington, a former civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, said this incident illustrates the importance of turning to social/emotional specialists to help students having a hard time — school counselors, psychologists, social workers and advocates like Graves, who knew Renee well.

“I think this is just a really important reminder that police and security officers aren't what's going to make schools safer," Washington said. "They're not what young children need.”

Rita Green, the education chair of the Seattle King County NAACP, called the situation "unbelievable."

“What would make an adult male think that it was appropriate to wrap their arms around a second-grader while placing their knee in a 7-year-old's back?” Green said. “We have got to find a way to assure we have anti-racist staff in our school buildings,” Green said.

Seattle Public Schools has long been under pressure to change how students are policed and disciplined. The district has been the subject of a federal Department of Education investigation since 2012 about whether Black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than white students for the same infractions.

In the midst of nationwide racial justice protests this spring, numerous online petitions called on the district 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.

The district kept the 46 security guards stationed at middle and high schools, however, and the six division tactical specialist security guards, like Raybern, who are dispatched from district headquarters to deal with reported security threats at elementary schools and other schools without full-time guards.

Although Graves reported the incident to the district when it happened in March, Raybern was not placed on paid administrative leave until KUOW began investigating the incident in June. Codd notified him of his termination in mid-July, but he remained on district payroll until the end of August.