Force, fear clouds waters at NU
April 9, 2013
On April 2, some two dozen Nevada County Sheriff officers stormed onto Nevada Union High School to arrest six students from class.
My sister, who is a sophomore at the school, tells me that whispers and Facebook messages were buzzing with rumor and fear that morning, wondering why armed police were stalking the campus, wondering who had been taken from class, now wondering, days later, who is on "the list" of what we are assured is an "ongoing investigation."
Presumably, many teachers and staff were equally surprised, only Assistant Superintendent Trisha Dellis was at all forewarned of the raid.
There was not a single student quoted in The Union's article on the police activity. Nor was there a single teacher. Not a parent of those arrested. Only Sheriff Keith Royal, Lieutenant Steve Tripp and Principal Mike Blake's voices were heard, unanimously in support. But while I object to the local media's coverage, I object still more to the incident itself.
And what message are the young men and women at Nevada Union receiving? That they should come to expect police surveillance?
As far as I know, I was the last student to make The Union's front page for a forcible classroom arrest. So I am perhaps uniquely qualified to make this complaint. In the spring of '07, I took a GVPD motorcycle officer's helmet from his unattended vehicle parked on campus in an admittedly stupid, though essentially prankish act. The police response was inappropriately staged and disproportionate to the alleged crime (the eight officers present at my arrest amounted to nearly half the GVPD's active force). My teacher vehemently objected to the police's unannounced invasion of her classroom. My close friend, who had nothing to do with the crime, was also taken in after I was scared into spilling his name. My parents had to come find me in jail. Now the Sheriff's department seems to have copied the GVPD's cavalier and callous unilateralism.
Sheriff Keith Royal says he wants to send a message. Besides the glowing coverage he received from The Union and KCRA, what other motivation could he have for making such a scene? He makes no mention of how these arrests play into a larger strategy on drug abuse or how the alleged drug sellers threatened the safety of other students. There is scant reason to believe either. We might well wonder whether the message he sent was worth the undercover agent's three months salary and exactly how long these investigations will last.
And what message are the young men and women at Nevada Union receiving? That they should come to expect police surveillance? That their unknown neighbor may be a spy? That positive change comes by bureaucracy married with force? That they should feel insecure in the very place the law, their community and their own self regard obliges them to be? Or as Mr. Blake suggests, that people must be scared into conscience? That being put in jail is a favor? That there is a choice to be made between law and kin? These are strikingly illiberal suggestions.
Imminently inadequate preparation for citizenry in a free society.
And let's be clear, Mr. Blake, the six young people and their families who you've been entrusted to serve do not need this trauma and unnecessary hardship to be "steered to correction." The rest don't need to be scared away from temptation. Our justice system will hopefully do what it can to alleviate the harm done. But these six and maybe more will be leaving your school with criminal records, derailed futures and a memory scarred by terror and mortification. Indeed, they will need resilience.
There are alternatives. On April 3, an article in The New York Times featured 21 Oakland school districts that have abandoned the zero-tolerance policy in favor of mediated peer "talking circles" for troubled students. The problems there with crime and drugs are more real and severe than ours will ever be. We should take their change in policy seriously. Especially since they are seeing results, finding that "forging closer, franker relationships among students, teachers and administrators … encourages young people to come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing while challenging them to develop empathy for one another." What a sorry comparison we make with Oakland!
Hope in the midst of despair versus fear in the midst of prosperity.
So here's to a franker, more open and secure school environment, one that allows room for freedom of conscience to blossom into sound judgment. Let's not allow force and fear to cloud those waters. And here's to a police force that can find more meaningful and effective ways of serving our community.
William Cody Curtis lives in Nevada City.
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