Did race play a role in a Willard school incident?

On the afternoon of March 26, Monica Ayers was driving with a relative down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley when a pickup truck sped up behind them. Ayers watched the truck pass them and then make a U-turn in front of Willard Middle School, where the driver stopped in the middle of the road, got out, and sprinted toward a 12-year-old student. The incident shocked and concerned Ayers and her relative (who wishes to remain anonymous), so they pulled over.

As the student ran away from the man, he darted into the street, where a passing car ended up pinning his foot under the tire. The truck driver caught up to the child and grabbed him from behind, making what Ayers described as a “tackling move.”

Ayers got out of the car and went across the street to find the student crying and limping. A crowd that had gathered asked the man why he had attacked the student. One bystander called the police.

Berkeley police officers arrived minutes later, handcuffed the man, and interviewed him and witnesses. According to Berkeley police Chief Andrew Greenwood, the truck driver told police that he had seen the student pick up a young girl and throw her to the ground. He had attempted to stop the student and then chased him when he fled. The man was attempting to make a citizen’s arrest of the student and no crime had occurred, Greenwood said. In his report, Officer Byron White wrote that bystanders said the students were engaged in horseplay and there was no assault. White wrote that the suspect “may have made better decisions” but he didn’t believe he had intended to harm the student.

Police released the man without a citation, to the shock of Ayers, other bystanders, and teachers at the middle school. “I’m just really disheartened and disappointed that this person could come on school property and physically attack a minor and just be allowed to go on with their day like nothing happened,” Ayers said in an interview.

In May, Willard teachers sent a letter to Greenwood seeking answers. Later that month, the student’s grandmother and legal guardian, Glenda Secrease, was allowed to view surveillance video of the incident and was provided with a heavily redacted version of the police report that omitted the suspect’s name and statement. She provided a copy of the report to the Express.

Secrease said in an interview that Berkeley police spent little time talking to her grandson before he went to the hospital and made no attempt to interview him later. When she met him in the hospital, her grandson told her that when the man caught him, he said, “Oh, you want to fight girls? Oh, you want to die motherfucker? Because I can kill you motherfucker,” according to Secrease.

The pickup truck driver is white and the student is Black. Faculty and staff at the school, witnesses, and others familiar with the case have questioned whether the police response would have been the same if the race of the people involved were reversed.

“We all know if it had been reversed and if this had been a Black man who ran down a white kid, we would be in a whole other situation right now,” said Pamela Stewart, the school safety officer at Willard.

“It was really upsetting. Our kids have been through a lot of counseling since then,” Stewart said. “It was traumatizing for them because nobody knew who this guy was and we still don’t know who he is. There have been no consequences for what he did.”

The incident happened at about 3:30 p.m., just after school had been released for the day. The student, who Secrease asked to not be identified, was playing outside with friends.

In his report, Sgt. Sean Ross wrote that the student had apparently picked up another student while playing and then either dropped her or she fell to the ground, which made it appear to the passing truck driver that she was being assaulted. (The female student is white.) The driver had no connection to the school, and teachers there did not recognize him. Ross wrote that the suspect’s desire to detain the student “by chasing and grabbing” him “probably wasn’t the best course of action or best thought out, but it did appear to be legal.”

Before police arrived, the car that had stopped on the student’s foot as he ran into Telegraph left the area. Police did not obtain a detailed description of the white sedan, according to police Sgt. Andrew Frankel, and are still seeking the driver. Descriptions of the sedan were redacted in the police report provided to Secrease.

Secrease was first informed of what happened by a teacher from the school, she said. Later, she was called by White and then Ross, who described the incident as a “misunderstanding,” she said. The student was taken to Children’s Hospital Oakland by a reading teacher, Patty Bonsall, who met Secrease there. But when Secrease talked to her grandson, he told her a very different story — that he had been attacked and threatened. He hadn’t told the police that he had been threatened, but they hadn’t asked him many questions before he went to the hospital, she said, and they made no attempt to follow up.

When Secrease first tried to obtain the police report, she said she was told that the records could not be released because her grandson is a minor. Faculty and staff at Willard wrote in a letter dated May 7 that Berkeley police had still not provided written information to the student’s family. After that, Secrease was invited back to the police department to pick up the police report. It was only then that she found out that there was surveillance video.

Mansour Id-Deen, the president of the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP, accompanied Secrease to pick up the police report and watched the video with her. “It shows a terrified child being chased down by an adult that has nothing to do with the school or him,” Id-Deen said.

The short video shows the student running toward the street, apparently trying to cross it, Id-Deen said. A car pulls up on his foot at the curb. The man catches up with the student and grabs him from behind and holds him until another person, apparently a teacher, approaches them and has the driver back up off the child’s foot. There is no audio recording.

“I think [police] realized that they made a mistake and they had to cover up that mistake,” Id-Deen said. “They made a mistake in not arresting this person on the spot, at least an arrest, and let the courts figure it out. For them to say it didn’t rise to the level of arrest is ridiculous when everyone else thinks it did.”

The Express was unable to obtain a copy of the surveillance video. Frankel said that the video quality is poor so it would not be useful in locating the hit-and-run driver and since it involves a minor, police would not release it. Charles Burress, a spokesperson for the school district, said that the district is still in discussions with Secrease about providing her with a copy of the video, but have not made a determination whether they will because there are other students visible in the video.

Once Secrease read the police report, she realized it was heavily redacted. The man’s entire statement, the key piece of evidence police used to determine he had committed no crime, was omitted. White told the Express in an email that the department routinely redacts suspect statements prior to releasing police reports.

On May 21, Greenwood responded to the Willard teachers’ letter, apologizing for the delay. He wrote, “Berkeley Police also reached out to the family and provided them with a copy of the police report,” but that had happened only days before his letter, after the department initially refused to provide the report.

Greenwood said that the district attorney’s office reviewed the case and determined that none of the driver’s actions merited prosecution. Teresa Drenick, a spokesperson for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, was unable to find any record of her office reviewing the case using the student’s name and the police report number. Berkeley police did not respond to questions about when the case was reviewed and by whom.

Kathryn Mapps, another teacher at Willard, responded with a follow-up letter to Greenwood, saying that she and her colleagues still had many questions about what had happened.

“Perhaps as educators our perspective of middle school students is different from yours, but we believe they are children who deserve protection (including police protection) from adults who would do them harm,” Mapps wrote. “By not pursuing charges in the case, the police department, the Alameda County District Attorney and the city of Berkeley are failing our student, his family and our community.”