The officer involved in the incident, James Tsagaroulis, is back at work this week in his normal duties as resource officer at the school. The student, a senior and a minor, is too fearful to go to class.

Accounts of what happened on February 1 vary widely.

In his police report, Tsagaroulis said he approached the student in the auditorium hallway after responding to a radio call from the school’s office secretary. According to the statement, the student was breaking the rules by being on school property during midterm exams when he didn’t have an exam scheduled. 

Tsagaroulis said the student began saying obscenities to him and poking his vest. Eventually, Tsagaroulis said, the student struck him in the face with an open palm. 

The officer said he then grabbed the student’s “arms and guided him to the ground so I could take him into custody.” Tsagaroulis handcuffed the student and took him out of the school to be transported to the South Kingstown Police Department, where he was processed. The student was charged with misdemeanor simple assault and disorderly conduct.

But a high school staff member who witnessed the incident and tried to intervene to deescalate the situation describes Tsagaroulis’s actions much differently. 

In his statement to police, the staff member said he responded to the call with Tsagaroulis, who he said seemed “all wound up,” and saw the school resource officer, or SRO, engage in a verbal “back and forth” with the student.

“The student started complaining that the SRO was in his personal space,” the employee wrote in his statement, adding that Tsagaroulis told the student he touched him, and the student responded, “I didn’t mean to, it’s because you’re crowding me.”

The statement says the student stood up from a stool he was sitting on to avoid being crowded by the officer, at which point the staff member tried to stand between the student and the officer.

The statement says Tsagaroulis continued engaging with the student verbally, “further provoking the student.”

It continued, “During this verbal exchange out of nowhere the SRO grabbed the student with 2 hands and threw him into the stools/counter area and then threw him to the floor.”

The employee said he asked Tsagaroulis “What are you doing?” and said “This shouldn’t be happening!” 

He said Tsagaroulis jumped on the student’s back while he was face down on the floor “then thrust his knee” on the back of the student’s neck “with such force the student let out a moan” and said “I can’t breathe.”

The student’s mother is questioning the police department’s decision to clear Tsagaroulis of wrongdoing after an internal investigation and allow him back into the school. She said she is considering hiring an attorney to take legal action against the school district. 

“I’m infuriated,” she said. “All I want is this guy out of the school.”

She asked that her name not be made public to protect the privacy of her son.

The mother said she was not allowed to see a security video of the incident because another minor was in the frame. She said her son did poke Tsagaroulis and grab his mask, but she said the officer also grabbed her son’s mask. She believes the officer didn’t like her son’s attitude and aggressively entered his space intentionally to intimidate him and provoke a response to justify physically punishing him.

“This is traumatic for him. This is unreal,” she said. “This is like a prison. This is not a school.”

In an interview, South Kingstown Police Chief Joel Ewing-Chow said “we don't want anyone to be afraid of the police at all” but that he “found the officer to be well within his rights to act the way he did.”

Ewing-Chow said, “He's certified. He's trained. He's doing his job that he's supposed to be doing.”

When asked about the differences between the witness statement and Tsagaroulis’s account of the event, Ewing-Chow said, “I'm not saying” that the staff member “wasn't telling the truth. But the officer had his opinion on what occurred, and that's what we went with.”

Ewing-Chow said security video from the school also “supported” his department’s investigation. He said he could not speak further about the incident, because the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights prevents him from doing so. Ewing-Chow said Tsagaroulis has worked as a resource officer at the high school for several years and has not had any other complaints against him.

The video of the incident is the property of the South Kingstown School Department, Ewing-Chow said. The town’s interim superintendent, Frank Pallotta, did not respond to an email this week seeking a copy of the video.

When asked in an earlier interview if the video was consistent with the police report, Pallotta said, “Yeah.” He then added, “I mean, there were details in there where you can't see certain things. I don't have an investigative mind. I’m an educator.” 

The case was referred to the attorney general’s office by the South Kingstown Police Department, which is recommended under the Attorney General Use of Force Review Protocol. Spokesperson Kristy dosReis said the office is working with the town’s police department and would not comment further because the investigation is ongoing.

Community members in South Kingstown are asking school officials for an investigation by an independent organization, removal of the resource officer from the school for the rest of the year, and a review of the use of police personnel in schools.

A petition online says they want school officials to “take concrete steps to prioritize de-escalation and training rather than criminalizing children’s behavior.”

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.