January 19, 2018 began as a normal Friday for the students and staff of Helix Charter High School. It began with the first class of the day beginning at 7:50 A.M., and ended at 2:55 P.M. as it regularly does. However, in between those hours occurred an event that will forever linger in the Helix and La Mesa community due to the power of social media and the power of law enforcement.
Between the hours of 1 and 2 P.M., during the time of Helix’s last period class, students in the science building captured the scene of an altercation between a La Mesa Police Department Resource Officer and a 17-year-old female senior.
Aeiramique Blake, speaking on behalf of the victim and her family gave insight on the events leading to the altercation. According to Blake, the senior, who was serving an in-school suspension for too many tardies, complained to a staff member of feeling ill. However, the staff member suspected drugs and ordered a search through her belongings in order to see if she was in possession of a substance. Pepper spray was found instead and that is when the situation began to escalate.
Pepper spray is viewed as a “weapon” on school campuses despite student objection; many students use pepper spray for protection on public transportation.
Blake explains that the student was told she needed to leave the premises. The student felt the reason for her to leave campus was not justified and refused to leave until she felt it was. This defiance led staff to call upon local police.
What came next was recorded and posted by several students who were in class just feet away from the altercation. In the video, an officer is seen grabbing the student then throwing her to the side and onto the ground where the student laid sprawled out with her back on the cement. Immediately, an uproar of anger and protest sprouted from Helix students, taking to social media to re-post the event on several social media sites in order to bring attention in hopes of earning justice for the excessive force brought upon their peer.
Within hours, a peaceful protest was organized by Helix students to occur on the following Monday, Jan. 22 during first period at 8 A.M. News of the walkout began spreading quickly on Twitter.
Prior to the protest, Senior Sophie Parker claimed she directly contacted the police station for direct facts on the situation.
“They didn’t give me anything other than what was in the press release,” Parker explained, “But they told me the lieutenant was going to call me.”
That call, however, has yet to be made to Parker.
With a press release published, Helix administration was bound to communicate with its students.
An email was sent to all students and parents that weekend from the Helix administration regarding the incident. While many suspected the email would advise students to step down from their walkout, it genuinely encouraged students to express themselves, which is exactly what they did.
Protesting students were greeted by staff members, allowing them to walk towards the front lawn near the local El Compadre Taco Shop with the information that there would also be an open mic opportunity for students to speak later that day at lunch. Not only were students greeted by staff, but many reporters from local news stations, as well.
Peers, classmates, and community members all spoke in an open mic event in front of news cameras all for one simple reason: support the victim.
Destiny Tuinei, a senior and friend of the victim, spoke directly about the reasoning behind the walk out. “This protest, it isn’t about race, it isn’t about gender, it’s about a police officer using excessive force on a teenage student.”
A representative for the family of the victim, Monica Montgomery, describes how the family is “distraught” from the situation.“When this type of abuse happens to a person, there are long-term effects.”
In regards to the student protest itself, Montgomery expressed how she was “proud” of Helix students for using their voices. “I’m really proud to be apart of students taking part of their own dignity, their own respect,” Montgomery proudly states, “The students stood together today and I am very proud of that.”
Not only was Montgomery proud of the students, but also one of Helix’s own staff member who spoke on the situation. Aleen Jendian, Helix First and AP English Language and Composition teacher, regarded a student’s safety being violated as “awful.”
“This is a place of safety for students and when any student on our campus feels unsafe, it gets me in the heart,” Jendian expressed, clutching her fist to her chest.
While the protest and walkout ended by second period that morning, there was still justice that left to be established.
Later that week, a handful of students and community members marched to the La Mesa Police Department from Helix’s campus in order to speak directly with Chief Walt Vasquez. However, they were met with locked doors.
On Jan. 29, during a community forum on the subject of the event, Vasquez confirmed it was a mistake to lock the doors on his behalf.
Vasquez claims he knows he “should not have locked the door” but claims he did apologize to them later on, thanking them for “accepting my apology.”
As the trauma of this incident has strongly affected those at and around Helix, the issue brought forth on Jan. 19 is not being dismissed. January 19 will forever be a day the victim will tragically remember and that will linger within the Helix community until a trust, now damaged, can be repaired. A walkout protest, a march for justice and a community forum are amazing opportunities to use our voices but they won’t make what happened disappear.
If a student still feels affected by the situation and feels the need to speak about it, students are encouraged to visit the Wellness Center located in the old main office.