The fight stemmed from an online exchange on Twitter that allegedly dates back to spring break in March.
Neither female approached school officials about the previously escalating conflict, according to principal Mike Culberson.
The most recent, allegedly a sexually derogatory comment, led to the physical exchange at school on Thursday, May 22.
A 16-year-old junior was seated outside in the school’s courtyard and was confronted by a 17-year-old student, Alexus Gabriel Garrett, flipping the teen’s lunch tray up on her chest after asking about the alleged online posting.
The 16-year-old — whose name is being withheld because she is a minor under age 17 — then threw peaches at Garrett, who responded by attempting to throw a punch at the younger girl, but missed. The 16-year-old then shoved Garrett back in defense and both girls fell to the ground.
Each girl threw several punches and then Garrett pinned the other girl to the concrete and began delivering several punches to the girl’s head, according to authorities.
The school’s resource officer, Billy Mullis, who is a corporal with the LaFayettte Police Department, had been inside the cafeteria when a male coach pointed out that a fight had begun out in the courtyard.
He gave multiple verbal commands for the girls to stop, according to police captain Stacey Meeks.
“(As he arrived), one girl was down on the ground and the other girl (Garrett) was mounted on top of her, punching repeatedly,” Meeks said.
Out of fear that the younger female could sustain serious injury from being pummeled on the concrete, Mullis chose to use his taser instead of tackling Garrett, according to the “use of force” report that Mullis filed an hour after the altercation.
An officer is required to fill out a statement after any show of force, which includes “laying hands,” taser deployment, use of pepper spray, or shooting a suspect.
“The actions of SRO Mullis have been determined to be well within the standard operating procedures, as far as use of force and taser deployment,” Meeks said, after reviewing the incident with police chief Benji Clift.
“One of the young ladies was on her back, and (Mullis) was afraid that with the concrete beneath (the 16-year-old) and the female on top punching her in the head, that this girl would sustain some serious injuries,” Meeks said.
Culberson said there have been fewer fights in recent years and a shift in the expectations and the behavior of students.
“I am disappointed when kids resort to violence to resolve any kind of conflict,” Culberson said.
Garrett has misdemeanor affray charges pending from the fight and will possibly receive a date for a hearing in state court.
The 16-year-old faces the same charge, but it will be handled in juvenile court.
The LaFayette Police Department has had five tasers for nearly two years, four of which rotate among officers, except Mullis, who has been issued one due to his status as school resource officer at the LaFayette High. All law enforcement personnel must experience being tased before being authorized to carry the taser.
“It’s very unpleasant, but you’re probably less likely to receive an injury from being tased than from hands-on use of force by officers,” Meeks said. “Inadvertently, some people do get hurt by hands-on use of force. It (use of a taser) is a lot less trauma to the body than being tackled by a 200-pound man.”
There have been five or six fights at the school, according to Mullis, and this was the first instance in which the fight continued after he arrived, according to Meeks. Other instances either ended quickly or were broken up by faculty members.
Officer discretion is a situational consideration in the use of force. In the event one of the females had a weapon, Mullis could have used deadly force, if the situation warranted it, according to Meeks.
Students “oohed” several times as they watched the fight begin, but were stunned and many gasped simultaneously in disbelief as Mullis deployed the taser, according to officials.
The students’ response led school officials to briefly fear that one of the students had severely injured the other.
Meeks stated that a taser could be used on a suspect of any age in dangerous circumstances, as it temporarily incapacitates the suspect.
“If there is a situation, where it is an officer safety issue or a public safety issue, and the officer feels the need to deploy the taser to prevent further violence either to himself or to a third party, then he can deploy the taser,” Meeks said. “From the officer’s standpoint you have a couple of seconds to make decisions. It’s easy for others to be an armchair quarterback after situations like this.”
Due to the expense, and having to privately raise funds for the tasers, none are equipped with the optional video recording capability, according to Meeks.
The school system’s video surveillance in the area did not capture the incident either, as it took place in a blind spot among three cameras that monitor adjacent areas.
Mullis can be heard yelling “break it up” during the last few seconds of the confrontation in a cellphone video posted on YouTube, showing Garrett throwing two punches before rolling off of the girl, as she was tased. (YouTube has removed the video, with a note saying the video’s content violated YouTube’s terms of service.)
“The young ladies involved really made all of the decisions yesterday. They chose to get into a verbal altercation and at least one party chose to make it physical,” Meeks said. “Their decisions is what led up to our officer having to deploy his taser and use force.”
Both females received a checkup with the school nurse within minutes of the fight, and all scrapes and bruises were sustained prior to the tasing, according to Meeks.
The female students have been suspended in accordance with the Walker County school system’s progressive discipline policy, according to Culberson. Neither had been in any previous fights and have minimal disciplinary action as students prior to this, which was taken into account for punishment.
Both are described as being good students, and Culberson was shocked that either would have been involved in the incident.
“Some of the worst fights I have ever seen (during six years as SRO) have been between girls,” Meeks said. “There are normally more severe injuries and they’re less likely to stop when teachers or officers intervene. I would have rather broken up ten fights with boys as to try and diffuse one girl fight.”
Several locals have speculated that Mullis chose the taser because of gender and fear of litigation, which is not the case, according to Meeks.
“In our line of work we deal with females on a daily basis, arresting juvenile and adult females,” Meeks said. “If an officer feels they must lay hands on a female, adult or juvenile, they are within their rights to do that. He made a split-second decision and it ended the fight.”
Variables for an officer’s response include age, physical fitness level, along with the age and fitness of the combatants. The environment even plays a role, with this assault occurring on concrete, which was significant in this case, according to Meeks.
No other school personnel were in the immediate vicinity of the fight as Mullis dealt with the two females.
Walker County schools chief issues statement
“On Thursday, May 23, 2013, there was an altercation on the campus of LaFayette High School involving two female students during lunch,” Walker County Schools superintendent Damon Raines said in a prepared statement Friday afternoon, May 24.
“The altercation took place on the patio area adjacent to the cafeteria,” Raines said. “The school resource officer made his way to the area and attempted to intervene; he gave multiple verbal orders for the students to stop. When neither complied, the student on the top was tased by the officer and the altercation ended. We are confident that the SRO relied on his training and made the best possible decision considering the safety of both students. The parents of both students were contacted immediately after the incident.”