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Normandy police chief critical of school security
Normandy

Normandy police chief critical of school security

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NORMANDY • For police, Normandy Middle School is a problem property. They responded there as many as four times a day last year to handle issues such as guards assaulting students, a teacher assaulting a student, a parent assaulting an administrator and students assaulting one another.

About five years ago, a Normandy police officer patrolled the hallways as a school resource officer, building relationships with students, parents and teachers to prevent conflicts or handle them in-house, said Chief Frank Mininni. But the department has since been shut out of the district for reasons school officials would not disclose and replaced by security officers hired from other police departments or private security firms, sometimes without proper licenses, the Post-Dispatch has learned.

Those officers have been responsible for a series of incidents at the middle school and high school, and have abandoned the bridges Normandy officers once tried to build among school staff, parents and students to reduce violence, Mininni complained in an interview.

In 2011, an off-duty Beverly Hills police officer working as a school security officer gave a 12-year-old student a concussion after throwing him against a locker, a substitute teacher threatened a student with a knife, and a parent struck the district’s head of security with his car, according to court documents outlining criminal charges against each.

“Any act of violence is going to trigger a response, and you don’t know what that response is going to be,” Mininni said. “School violence can happen anywhere, and to think nothing is going to happen here is ridiculous. At this point, it’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.”

Violence involving security staff also has erupted at Normandy High School, in Wellston. One guard, an off-duty Wellston officer, has been charged with a sex crime against a student. And two federal lawsuits accuse guards of assaulting students in separate incidents.

School Board members referred questions to Superintendent Stanton Lawrence. He declined to discuss personnel matters, and refused to answer any other questions except to claim that Mininni had backtracked on his critical comments. “The Normandy police chief has since said it was a mistake and he shouldn’t have said that,” Lawrence said.

But Mininni said he stands by his statements. The two have agreed to meet at some point, the chief said.

A CONTRACT ENDS

Normandy Officer Amanda Cates had about a year left on her contract as a school resource officer at the middle school when her fiancé killed her on Aug. 29, 2006. By the time Officer Victor Brinkmann replaced her in January 2007, he said, much of her work had begun to fade.

“We had fights and drug issues, but the difference was that we worked with the parents and teachers and handled everything in house so patrol could handle the rest of our city,” Brinkmann explained.

When the contract expired in the summer of 2007, Brinkmann said, district officials said they could not afford to renew it. An officer’s salary and benefits for one year school year is about $52,000.

The district spent about $1.1 million on security guards during the 2011-12 school year, according to documents the district provided after a sunshine request.

Christopher Sullivan, 41, an off-duty Beverly Hills officer, was one of them.

Normandy police first encountered him in February after a complaint was filed with the Missouri School Violence Hotline alleging that Sullivan, principals and teachers had threatened to beat up students.

On May 3, Sullivan was escorting about eight students to in-school suspension when he gave a 12-year-old student a concussion, according to court documents. Sullivan had no private security license, required by St. Louis County police of people working as guards, even if they are police officers.

Normandy police learned of the incident the next day, when the child’s grandmother called to demand an investigation. She had taken her grandson to a hospital the night before, police said, and doctors discovered the concussion.

Three Normandy police officers watched surveillance video of the incident. The officers said the boy and another student had fought but parted before the 5-foot-9, 300-pound Sullivan reached them. He slammed both of them against the lockers, and the 12-year-old hit his head while falling after the impact, according to the officers’ statements.

Days later, Normandy police tried to retrieve a copy of the video, but it had been erased. They said the school security director told them he erased it by accident while trying to save it. Detectives turned to experts who said it was not recoverable.

St. Louis County prosecutors charged Sullivan Nov. 30 with assault while on school property, a felony.

In December, Normandy municipal prosecutor Keith Cheung issued a summons for Sullivan for misdemeanor assault regarding the February complaint.

Sullivan had been put on administrative leave following the May incident. Normandy police are trying to find him to serve an arrest warrant. They said he resigned Dec. 7 from a youth counseling job with Department of Social Services and is believed to be in the Columbia, Mo., area.

Brinkmann said the situation poisons the reputation of police in the eyes of the children.

“These kids aren’t going to want to talk to us, because to them, we’re all bad now,” he said. “(Sullivan) was wearing his uniform that day. It doesn’t matter what color uniform I’m in. It makes my job 100 times harder.”

NORMANDY HIGH

Police calls also are frequent at the high school, in Wellston.

On Sept. 3, 2010, a ninth-grader was calling fellow football players to the field when security officer John Clay “grabbed him around the neck, began throttling him while shouting obscenities before pushing him to the ground and pummeling him about the chest,” according to a lawsuit filed against the district in federal court in April.

Clay also did not have the proper license to work security at the district at that time, county police said.

On Oct. 21, 2011, Damontae Woods, 18, suffered a heart rupture in an encounter with security officer James Walls after Woods was caught loitering in the hallway and being late to class, officials said.

Wellston police did not begin an investigation into that incident until a TV reporter told them of the severity of Woods’ injuries. Normandy school officials addressed the matter at a board meeting by reading a prepared statement that gave no details of the incident.

Woods is now awaiting a heart transplant, said his attorney, Bob Herman.

Wellston police did not submit any police reports to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office for consideration of criminal charges. Police Chief G. Thomas Walker did not return phone calls seeking comment.

After inquiries for this story, McCulloch said Walker has agreed to submit reports to be reviewed for potential criminal charges.

“Why that wasn’t done before, when the incidents actually occurred, I don’t know,” McCulloch said. “If there is a police report, then certainly we need to know about it, particularly if it involves a student at the school and a security person.”

Herman represents Woods in a lawsuit pending in federal court.

“He has congestive heart failure, and he’s only 19,” Herman said. “He can’t walk a block. He’s been in and out of the hospital. His quality of life is that of an average 87-year-old.”

Herman said Walls is still working as a guard at the high school.

“This is a very serious assault by an officer on a student which is in violation of their own rules and it was done using the power that the school gave him,” Herman said. “If they’re supposed to have training to restrain kids and it only is to be acted upon during very narrow and limited circumstances, why does this keep happening?”

On Oct. 30, Ronald Freeman, 27, an off-duty Wellston police officer who worked security at the high school, was charged with a sex crime after county police detectives investigated a 20-year-old high school student’s allegation that he forcibly sodomized her off campus.

NORMANDY MIDDLE

From August through December, Normandy police responded to the middle school more than 60 times for an array of problems including assaults, suicide attempts, bomb threats, stealing and trespassing, according to department data.

Brinkmann believes there would be fewer calls for service if his fellow officers could intervene often and early as they did while permanently on campus. School resource officers are responsible for more than just security, Brinkmann said. He saw himself as a mentor and often served as a mediator in conflicts. At times, that included teachers and school staff, he said.

“I had just started to see the gap closing when young men would come to me for advice and their parents would ask for me directly up there,” Brinkmann said. “I just wish the district would find the money because it’s not just a 9-to-5 job. The security guards who are there now are not trying to understand these kids, they’re just making sure they get to class.”

And they’re not making inroads with parents or teachers, Brinkmann said.

On Nov. 7, Stanley Covington, 64, a substitute math teacher, put a knife to the chest of a middle school student, according to court documents. The incident happened in the morning. Hours passed before Normandy police were notified. Covington has since been charged with unlawful use of a weapon.

On Dec. 3, Normandy police responded to the school after Reynaldo Castilleja, 46, allegedly struck the district’s director of security, Abernathy, with his car. Castilleja, a parent of a middle school student, struck Abernathy after being told he could not park near the school buses, according to court documents. Abernathy suffered a bruised hand and back sprain, according to the documents.

Just before the school dismissed for Christmas break, a bomb threat was found scrawled on a wall in a girls’ bathroom. “It said the school was going to blow up at noon and there would be a shooting after that,” Mininni noted. Nothing came of it.

Mininni said his department has made some progress working with the district, which serves about 4,200 students at nine schools.

It has agreed to let one of his officers teach a 13-week class to students about gang violence. And the department is planning to host a juvenile police academy that the Amanda Cates Foundation will fund.

The school district is in transition. The Missouri State Board of Education voted in September to revoke its accreditation. One month later, Lawrence, in his fifth year as superintendent, announced he will step down at the end of the school year, citing personal and family reasons. His contract was due to expire in the 2015 school year.

Mininni said the district needs to address security concerns right away.

“I’m ultimately responsible for what happens to the citizens of this city and what happens at that school,” he said.

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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