About 200 students walked out of class at East Ridge High School Friday morning, as did some teachers, in protest of a Tuesday arrest in the school gym that was the subject of a viral video.
The footage shows a white school resource officer, Tyler McRae, attempting to restrain a Black student, Tauris Sledge, 18, on the bleachers by pulling his hair and pushing him to the ground. A nearby staff member can be seen and heard saying "don't resist!" The student responds, "Ya'll see what he's doing? I'm not resisting."
Students left their classes at approximately 8:40 a.m. Friday and gathered on the school's football field. Several students and a teacher spoke. Some held signs that read "Don't pull my hair!" and "I'm not resisting." Other signs called for a new school resource officer.
Students chanted "No justice, no peace" and demanded change.
"I'm so proud of you," a teacher told students.
Following the speeches, students marched around the parking lot and the track field before returning to class.
Caleb Irvine, a 16-year-old junior at East Ridge High, said administrators cut the protest short.
"We wanted to protest until the admin agreed to make changes," Irvine said in a text message. "They tried to take over and make us go to class after only 45 minutes. They didn't understand that we were serious about everything."
District spokesman Steve Doremus said the district supports its students.
"What we saw today was a peaceful expression of student voices about an incident that happened at their school this week," Doremus said in a statement following the walkout. "We've heard from voices throughout the community and will continue to do so. We are pleased with the peaceful demonstration we saw this morning where students were heard on an issue that did in fact affect them in their school."
The Chattanooga NAACP posted the video of the Tuesday arrest on its Facebook page earlier this week, 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 Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has also released a longer video of the school resource officer's body camera.
In the hour-long video, footage shows McRae entered the gym and immediately approached a coach, who began detailing a situation involving Sledge.
The coach had organized a game of kickball, but Sledge said he wasn't feeling well and opted to sit out, according to a sworn affidavit entered in court in support of his arrest.
Later, Sledge, 18, decided to play basketball. When the coach 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.
Over the course of the next hour, McRae repeatedly asked Sledge to remove his backpack so he could place him under arrest. At one point, Sledge called his father while McRae dispensed mace.
Eric Atkins, co-chair of the Unity Group of Chattanooga, a civil rights organization, said the incident reflects a much larger issue.
"Five years ago, we pushed for the dismantlement of the school-to-prison pipeline around all Hamilton County Schools," Atkins said in a phone call. "It's not just about that video. It's about being institutionalized and systemic when it comes to the treatment of our students of color in classrooms and schools that we must be addressing right now."
Since the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May, Hamilton County school officials have put an emphasis on security and safety.
In June, the district announced a near $1 million investment to put school security officers in every building. The Hamilton County Commission also put an additional $1 million toward the effort.
In August, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office transferred roughly $600,000 in excess funds for the district to hire eight more security officers.
Unlike school resource officers, security officers are not active law enforcement and they cannot make arrests. They can, however, carry a weapon, detain and use lethal force if necessary.
Kendra Young, the executive director of UnifiEd, an education advocacy organization, said the difference between the two kinds of officers is important, in terms of how they are trained to approach situations.
"It's very difficult to find (a school resource officer) who's a good fit for the school, and I think that has a lot to do with the training," Young, who spent 20 years with Hamilton County Schools, said by phone.
Resource officers use a certain lens, which is focused on law, she said.
"An officer is trained, the lens that they are trying to look for is they see disorderly conduct, which is against the law," Young said. "An educator looks at that situation and sees a student who's struggling and being defiant."
School security officers are trained by the district, while the Sheriff's Office trains the resource officers.
"The district's school security officers that I have personally worked with and that my colleagues have worked with have been highly successful. They have gone through district's training for how they want them to interact within our schools," Young said. "I really think that the Sheriff's Office thought that releasing that that body cam footage was going to bolster their position and excuse the things that happened. Any educator worth their salt is going to look at that and see the exact opposite. I think it's just a different lens with which we view things."
Atkins said he understands the need for increased security in today's climate.
"But on the flip side of that, you've had a vast disinvestment in school counselors and nurses and personnel that help students on a day-to-day basis," Atkins said.
He echoed Young's sentiments on the need for better training.
"(Children) need their space to learn and grow, and a lot of the time, they're not given that space," Atkins said. "And as an effect, instead of teaching and guiding them in the right way, we punish or penalize and criminalize them."
In a news release, district officials said they remain committed to student safety and are reviewing policies, procedures and training to see that promise through.
"We are providing clear and firm guidance to schools and law enforcement regarding our shared beliefs, commitments, shared protocols for engagement, and a continuous improvement process to foster student-centered relationships that support the safety and well-being of all HCS children," the news release stated.
Officials said they welcomed conversation from the community and students.
"Just as we listen to the concerns and thoughts from our community, it is important that we also hear the voices of those in our classrooms who are directly affected by our actions," the news release stated. "We appreciate our students' willingness to be a part of this conversation, and we value their input."