Student advocates call for investigation in school violence incident

Benjamin Franklin High School located on North Broad Street. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY, file)

Benjamin Franklin High School located on North Broad Street. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY, file)

The Philadelphia Student Union is calling for an independent investigation of a controversial altercation between a student and a school police officer at Benjamin Franklin High School.

On May 5, junior Brian Burney tried to use the bathroom without a pass and was turned away by a school officer. As is the case at many district schools, bathroom doors are only unlocked when a student presents a pass to school police.

Burney became upset and threw an orange.

What happened next isn’t completely clear. Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, maintains that the unidentified officer punched Burney in the face and choked him.

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“The school police officer’s supervisor took pictures of [Burney’s] face, the nurse did apply ice packs to his face, she did write a report and then sent him home,” said Rivera.

School district spokesman Fernando Gallard disputes this account, saying Burney was neither punched nor choked, but subdued after he cursed out and attempted to physically intimidate the officer. Burney threw the orange directly at the officer’s head, but it missed, he said.

“The information at the time, and it’s clearly in the video that is now on social media, is that the school police officer had the student in a restraining hold, not a chokehold,” said Gallard.

Gallard said while Burney was being restrained, he slammed his own head on the floor three times, sustaining a concussion.

A student recorded the incident using a cell phone, but was told to delete the footage after it was turned over to the district.

Unlike the cell phone video, the student union thinks school security cameras might show what happened before the officer restrained Burney.

Gallard said the officer has been relocated while the district conducts its investigation of the incident. He said Burney hasn’t returned to class, but wasn’t suspended.

Burney could not be reached for comment.

On the first day of school in 2014, Burney joined education activists on North Broad Street. He told the crowd that, for many students, school buildings in the district “feel less like schools and more like jails.”

“I feel like we’re being treated like criminals because every morning, security and cops put our bags through X-ray machines, and we have to go through metal detectors and then be screened again with metal detector wands,” said Burney.

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