A 15-year-old special education student at Española Valley High School was tased by Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Barnes on May 10, for allegedly failing to comply with a search.
The incident took place in the High School’s administrative offices, where Assistant Principal Veronica Dean, Deputy Jeremy Barnes and two other staff members were present.
Barnes deployed the Taser in the student's chest area, which the manufacturer warns can induce cardiac arrest or lead to serious injury or death.
The student, through his attorney Shannon Kennedy, asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
On Wednesday (5/29), New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said he opened a probe into the incident.
"Schools should be a place where students feel safe and protected," Balderas said in a written statement. "I am aggressively investigating this disturbing incident."
'I’m going to tase you'
Barnes activated his lapel camera as he walked into Dean of Students Alex Rosa’s office. The student could be seen sitting in a chair.
A security guard told Barnes that the student swung his backpack at one of the security guards.
“Slammed you with a backpack, that’s not a big deal,” Barnes said.
The security guard then told Barnes that the student was refusing to submit to a search.
“Oh, he’s refusing, that’s fine,” Barnes said. “I’ll put his little ass in handcuffs and take him to Santa Fe.”
Barnes then turned to the student and told him to stand up.
The student stood up, turned around and reached his hands backwards toward Barnes to be placed in cuffs.
Barnes asked again if the student wanted to be cooperative or uncooperative.
“What do you think I’m doing?” the student asked as he turned to look at Barnes.
Barnes told the student again to turn around, at which point the student pulled away, and called Barnes a derogatory name.
Barnes grabbed the student and appeared to slam him facedown onto a desk in the room, and then released him.
Security guard Jack Romero is seen grappling with the student, who was seated in a chair but struggling with Romero.
“I’m going to (expletive) tase you,” Barnes yelled at the student.
The student is still seated in the chair with Romero struggling with him, at this point, the student’s hoodie has come off up over his head. He is still seated.
“Tase him, tase him, tase him!” Romero said.
Barnes shoots the student with a taser, in his upper left chest area, less than four seconds after he warned he was going to tase him.
The student started screaming and tried to get up, Romero moved away as Barnes continued to cycle the taser.
In all, three cycles of electric shocks were used on the student. By the third cycle, the student was face down on the ground, with Romero’s knee placed against the back of his neck and head.
“Put your hands up, put your hands behind your back,” Barnes said.
The student kept repeating “ow, ow, ow,” as Romero held him on the ground and Barnes put handcuffs on him.
“Comply right now, stop resisting, that’s it,” Romero told the student.
The student was cuffed and Romero removed his knee from the student’s neck area and rolled him onto his side.
“Please stop, please,” the student said to Barnes and the security guard.
Barnes contacted E911 Dispatch and requested an ambulance be dispatched to the school. He told dispatchers a Taser had been deployed.
“Ow, that hurt so much,” the student said.
Romero told him that he should have complied.
“What do you mean?” the student asked.
An unidentified woman in the background said something about the student’s “attitude,” and then the student responded about something regarding his belt.
“No, because I can articulate,” Barnes said as he searched the student’s pockets. “No, this is called a wax pen.”
The student told Barnes that what he was currently holding was just a pencil. He then admits that some other unseen object in the video belongs to him.
“Please, take off my belt, everything is in my shorts, I don’t even have anything bad,” the student tells Barnes.
Dispatchers called Barnes on his cellphone, to get more information about the ambulance request. Barnes again told them he had deployed a Taser on a student.
Barnes and Romero got the student to his feet, in handcuffs.
“I can’t ow, ow, ow, my knee,” the student said. “My knee, ow, oh god, my knee, my knee.”
Barnes directed the student to sit in a chair and then answered another call.
“Hey LT, I tased a student, I tried restraining him, they were engaged in a drug exchange, and then he started resisting, started fighting with the security guard,” Barnes said. “I asked him to comply, comply, so I tased him.”
The student was still talking about the pain, he said it felt like Barnes stabbed him in the heart and that the taser prongs in his skin hurt.
“It’s pain compliance,” Barnes told him. “It’s not going to kill you.”
No guardian present
Barnes told the student that he got tased because he was arguing and fighting with Romero.
“I have witnesses,” Barnes said.
At that point, school staff said the student’s mother had arrived at the school.
“She can wait, because he’s going to jail,” Barnes told school staff.
The student immediately asked for his mother.
“Get her, get my mom, I want my mom now,” the student said. “I want her now, please.”
Barnes refused to let school staff bring the mother to be present with her son.
“No, I want her in here, I don’t feel comfortable,” the student said.
Still, Barnes refused to allow the child’s mother to be there with her son. Instead, he told the student his mom was on her way.
“She’s here already, bring her back,” the student said.
Barnes said the mother could wait.
“Do you have tissues so you guys could clean my face?” the student asked.
Dean went and collected some tissue paper and wiped tears from the boy’s eyes and cheeks.
“(I told the mother) that she can’t come back here until you say it’s OK,” an unidentified school employee told Barnes. “She says she’s not comfortable with that. She wants to come back.”
Initially Barnes said to tell the mother to come back, but then changed his mind.
“Jack, can you go tell the mom she needs to be patient?” Barnes said to Romero.
Romero left to go speak with the mother.
Barnes told Romero that the student would be taken to the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office.
When he heard he would be taken to the Sheriff’s Office, the student asked why he was being arrested.
“Resisting arrest, obstructing an investigation, possession of drug paraphernalia,” Barnes said. “That’s what you’re getting charged with.”
Deputy claims IEP doesn't matter
Deputy Monica Salazar arrived to assist Barnes with the situation approximately nine minutes after the student was tased. Barnes left her in the office to supervise the student, and then went to talk to the student’s mother in the front lobby.
Barnes told the mother that based on his “experience,” he attempted to handcuff the student. Barnes said the student pulled away and was fighting with security.
“I told him that if you don’t quit fighting, you’re going to get tased,” Barnes said. “He didn’t want to stop, so he was tased.”
The mother then told Barnes that the student had an individualized education plan that directly addressed the way her son would be approached while at school.
An individualized education plan is a written document developed for school children eligible for special education.
Barnes said the plan did not matter.
Barnes refused to allow the child’s mother to be with him in the back administration office.
It was not until medics arrived and asked Barnes to bring the mother to her child that she was allowed to be in the same room with him. Nearly 16 minutes had passed since her son was tased.
Statements collected by Barnes, and his own report, offer versions of events that deviate from the lapel footage.
Barnes wrote that he told the student he would be charged with obstruction if he did not comply with a request to be searched, but that exchange is not on the captured lapel footage.
“(The student) was given a clear verbal warning, if he continued to resist he was going to be tased,” Barnes wrote. “(The student) continued to actively resist both Jack Romero and I. I then dischared the taser into (the student)...(the student) collapsed on the floor but continued to resist, another cycle of taser was given. (The student) refused to put his hands behind his back and continued to actively resist by refusing to put his hands behind his back, a third cycle was given at which time (the student) complied.”
Barnes wrote that he found two electronic vaping pens used for smoking liquid marijuana which he suspected contained marijuana.
Romero wrote that the student had repeatedly refused to comply with the search, and that the student tried hitting both him and Barnes.
“Barnes told (the student) that if he did not comply he had no choice but to handcuff him,” Romero wrote.
Security Officer Isabel Padilla had a slightly different version of events in her statement. She claimed the student tried to hit Barnes in the face prior to being tased.
Security Officer Fernanda Muñoz wrote that she heard Barnes warn the student “a couple of times about tazing (sic),” prior to the taser being deployed, and that afterward, another student in the hallway “got very frightened and his reaction was to sit looking towards the corner of the wall with tears in his eyes.”
Dean wrote in her statement that the student “tried swinging at the adults.”
“Deputy Barnes was telling (the student) to relax and cooperate,” Dean wrote. “He was refusing. They fell onto the floor and Deputy told him to stop or he would tase him. He kept telling him to stop. (The student) continued to resist and Deputy asked him repeatedly to stop resisting or he would Tase (sic) him.”
District Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez declined to comment on the incident, citing the pending litigation.
Sheriff’s Office Maj. Randy Sanches said May 22 when providing the footage following a public records request that it was a “good” use of force by Barnes.
He said later that his initial assessment of the incident was not the official stance of the Sheriff’s Office.
“I have (reviewed the lapel footage), the Sheriff has, the Undersheriff has, the Captain (Billy Merrifield), I believe has (reviewed the footage),” Sanches said in a phone interview May 24. “(Merrifield) now reviews all use of force.”
Merrifield was at an out-of-state training, and had not yet had an opportunity to review the footage as of May 24.
Sanches said he was basing his assessment on his training and experience, but declined to say what specialized training he had concerning use of force, or use of force involving juvenlies.
When asked about the Sheriff’s Office policies concerning use of force, Sanches said he would have to locate them, but that he did not have time to provide them before press time.
“It’s a use of force that under law would be allowable, and I don’t think would be determined as being unreasonable,” Thomas Grover, an Albuquerque attorney and expert witness on police policy and procedure said Monday after reviewing the footage. “But this is a really good case that shows just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.”
Grover said that the Barnes did not demonstrate, by “any stretch of the words” a model example of professionalism.
“Just because (the student is) lippy doesn’t mean you tase him, and given the situation where you have a kid that’s surrounded by at least, it looked like four adults, there’s no threat to the (deputy),” Grover said.
Student plans tort claim
Shannon Kennedy, of Kennedy, Kennedy and Ives Law Firm, is representing the family of the student, and said she has sent notice of tort claims to both the District and the Sheriff’s Office.
She said her firm is very concerned about the incident, and that the family may file an additional lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act in response to the incident.
“Claims against Rio Arriba County, Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, Española Public Schools and Española Valley High School include but are not limited to, unreasonable seizure, negligent training, and/or excessive force by a law enforcement officer and any claim arising under (New Mexico tort claims statutes relating to law enforcement officers),” the notice states.
Kennedy said she was particularly concerned with the area in which Barnes struck the student with the taser prongs. She said the Taser manufacturer had released guidelines for law enforcement that warns against using a taser in the area near the heart.
Barnes deployed three cycles, or used the Taser for a total of 15 seconds on the student, according to a use of force form he prepared for the Sheriff’s Office.
“Most human (Taser) lab testing has not exceeded 15 seconds of (shock) application, and none has exceeded 45 seconds,” A TASER warning to law enforcement published in October 2018 states. “When possible, avoid targeting the frontal chest area near the heart to reduce the risk of potential serious injury or death.”
Save the Kids, a national organization dedicated to ending the incarceration of youth and the school-to-prison pipeline, is critical of the officer’s conduct in the incident.
“We are very concerned that this incident was not handled administratively through a Teen Court venue, which is a much more appropriate forum to address the situation the school staff was concerned about,” Selinda Guerrero, of Save the Kids New Mexico, said Tuesday. “It is critically important not to criminalize youth and to allow restorative justice to take place so that young people can be welcomed back into their education communities and not outcasted. Over 90 percent of adults experiencing incarceration started in the juvenile system.”