Hamilton County Schools reviewing body cam footage of East Ridge student arrest

Staff photo / East Ridge High School, located at 4320 Bennett Road, is seen on Thursday, July 25, 2019 in East Ridge, Tenn.
Staff photo / East Ridge High School, located at 4320 Bennett Road, is seen on Thursday, July 25, 2019 in East Ridge, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools officials are investigating events leading up to the arrest of a Black student at East Ridge High School after a video of the incident went viral Tuesday.

The footage shows a white school resource officer attempting to restrain the student on the bleachers by pulling his hair and pushing him to the ground. A nearby adult can be seen and heard saying "don't resist!" The student responds, "Ya'll see what he's doing? I'm not resisting."

The Chattanooga NAACP posted video of the interaction on its Facebook page, with the comment, "We have questions and need explanations. What was the cause of this situation at East Ridge High School?

The district is looking into the matter.

"The safety of students and staff is the highest priority for Hamilton County Schools," a news release stated. "We are aware of a situation at East Ridge High School today involving the interaction of a student and the school's school resource deputy. HCS is working with school administrators and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to gather information about the incident. When that process is complete, we will review the information to make sure we are taking all available steps to ensure a safe learning environment where all students feel accepted and welcomed."

School board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent of Chattanooga, said she's upset based on what she saw in the video.

"I am disturbed by the entire scene," Robinson said by phone. "And I think that it's imperative that we do as much investigating into the situation as possible."

She said the district has requested the officer's body camera footage and will review it as soon as possible.

"I do believe that it's important that we do an investigation before we make any conclusions first, of course, but to even see something like this happening in our schools is just, it's really shocking to me," Robinson said.

The student, identified as Tauris Sledge, 18, is facing multiple charges, according to a sworn affidavit in support of his arrest, obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The charges include assault, resisting arrest and obstruction of legal process.

According to the affidavit, School Resource Officer Tyler McRae was contacted over radio by the gym coach to assist with Sledge, who was described as being aggressive to the coach.

The coach had organized a game of kickball, but Sledge said he wasn't feeling well and opted to sit out. Later, he decided to play basketball. When the coach later approached him to ask why he was playing basketball if he wasn't feeling well, Sledge started "puffing his chest" and calling the coach racist, according to the affidavit.

(READ MORE: Certain kinds of bullying are up at Hamilton County Schools)

When McRae arrived at the gym, he stood by while the coach and Sledge continued their conversation. Sledge continued to become louder and louder, and McRae told him to "chill" and quiet his voice, according to the affidavit.

Sledge then turned to walk away, and McRae put his hand on the side of his shoulder in an attempt to pull him aside for a private conversation, according to the affidavit.

McRae stated that he intended to talk to Sledge so "an arrest would not have to happen for disorderly conduct," according to the affidavit.

Sledge then "bladed off," the affidavit states, and told McRae he had "five seconds" to remove his hand.

McRae stated that he then became defensive and felt as if Sledge was preparing to assault him. He ordered Sledge to stand up and place his hands behind his back, which the student refused to do, according to the affidavit.

After restraining Sledge by his backpack, his hair and giving several commands to Sledge to stop resisting, McRae pepper-sprayed the student, the affidavit states. A nurse was called immediately to the scene, and it took several more attempts for Sledge to stop resisting, according to the affidavit.

Sledge was taken to the Hamilton County Jail, run by the Sheriff's Office, which employs school resource officers.

Sheriff Austin Garrett said in a news release Wednesday his office plans to release McRae's body cam footage once the identities of uninvolved minors are removed. Garrett also said the viral video lacked context and the body cam footage documents one hour of events leading up to Sledge's arrest.

"I understand this is a sensitive issue to many in our community," Garrett said in the news release.

But board member Kartisa Mosley Jones, D-Chattanooga, said the video is still unnerving.

"I saw the video. It was very troubling for me from a couple of different angles," Jones said in a phone call. "One, as a mother of two African American sons, my heart goes out to that mom and to that child and their family. Second, it is very troubling from a school board member standpoint. In my experience, having been a Hamilton County school graduate myself, we didn't have those types of engagements or interactions with our SRO. The relationships were not as such."

As to whether the incident was racially motivated, Jones said she couldn't say.

(READ MORE: Certain kinds of bullying are up at Hamilton County Schools)

"I don't know (the officer's) moral or ethical values or where he stands as a relates to implicit bias, discrimination, prejudice," Jones said. "I don't know that, so I cannot say that this individual is racist, and I will not say that. What I will say is the experience that this young man had yesterday is something that is becoming more prevalent than not with individuals that look like him. And at that time, what do you say?"

Board member Larry Grohn, R-East Ridge, who represents East Ridge High, said Sledge should have complied with the officer.

"It's unfortunate for the young man, but this is the type of situation that can happen when a person refuses to comply with rules and instructions," Grohn said in a text message. "His father is his guardian and is involved in and spoke with the school admin."

Robinson said that after the body camera footage is reviewed, it's time for the district and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to get on the same page about student treatment.

"There has to be a partnership between our Sheriff's Office and our school system because they are still engaged in our schools, but we can't be working off two different playbooks and singing from two different hymn books," Robinson said. "And so maybe this is an opportunity to really talk more about what does the SRO role really look like in our schools and how do we best benefit students with that role?"

Robinson said it's an issue she plans to address as soon as possible.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.