All Ryan Turk wanted was his carton of milk.
The teenager says he had forgotten to grab the drink the first time through the line at the Graham Park Middle School cafeteria, so he headed back. A recipient of free lunches at the Virginia school, Ryan felt he was just doing what he did every day.
But a school resource officer said he spotted the teen cutting in line and accused him of stealing the 65-cent milk. When Ryan did not cooperate with a trip to see the principal, authorities say, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and petit larceny.
Ryan turned down an offer of nonjudicial punishment, and, this week, a Prince William County judge set a trial date in November for the Dumfries teen, who is now a freshman in high school.
He will face the criminal charges just days after his 15th birthday.
Ryan and his mother, Shamise Turk, acknowledge that he took a carton of milk on that day last school year, but they say he was entitled to it and did nothing wrong.
They, and their lawyer, allege that Ryan was discriminated against, targeted because he is a black teenager who did not want to go along with a police officer who they say was being unfair.
“No one needs to be punished for stealing a 65-cent carton of milk,” said Emmett Robinson, a lawyer representing the family who said Ryan’s arrest was related to institutional racism. “This officer treats kids like they’re criminals, and guess what happens — they’re going to become criminals.”
The case of the allegedly stolen milk is an example of the challenges students, schools and school resource officers face when it comes to discipline, especially when it involves students who are minorities and living in poverty. Studies show that black students are subject to more frequent — and harsher — discipline than their peers and that there are biases against them that begin as early as prekindergarten classes. Black students in Richmond recently filed a civil rights complaint against their school district, alleging that discipline practices there are unfair.
Ryan is black and is eligible for free lunches in Prince William County. The officer and the principal involved are also black, something the county noted in responding to the claims that the student was targeted by race.
Phil Kavits, a Prince William County schools spokesman, said that he could not comment on the specifics of the incident but that it is not a race-related issue.
“All the key parties involved, including the principal and the police officer, are African American,” Kavits said in a statement. “The staff members are well known in our highly diverse community for their dedication and caring approach to all students.”
Robinson said the race of the school employees involved does not matter and that racial profiling can come from anyone.
“It’s not the players, it’s not the people who discriminate; it’s the whole system,” Robinson said, noting that his client has not been in trouble before. “The system is set up now so that school resource officers get to determine the impact on a person’s life.”
The Washington Post generally does not identify minors charged with misdemeanor crimes, but Ryan and his family opted to speak publicly to bring attention to the matter.
The incident occurred May 10, during the school’s lunchtime. Ryan said he forgot to grab his milk when going through the line and returned to get a carton.
The school resource officer told authorities that Ryan cut in the lunch line, took a carton of milk and concealed it. The officer confronted him, and he reported that Ryan threw the milk back. When the officer suggested that he needed to speak with the principal, he became disorderly, police said.
Sgt. Jonathan Perok, a Prince William police spokesman, said that the middle-schooler “leaned back and pushed against the officer” and that as the pair approached the principal, the teen tried to “push past the officer to get away.”
The family’s account differs. Turk, who works for the school district, said that she saw surveillance footage of the incident and that it shows her son did not conceal the milk.
Ryan says that after he got his milk, he sat down and was confronted by the officer.
He said that he put the milk back but that the officer told him to pick up the carton and take it to the principal. The teen said the officer grabbed him by his neck.
“It’s just unfair,” Ryan said. “Other people did that. One boy, I told him to get one for me before. But when I do, I get in trouble.”
The officer handcuffed Ryan at the school and placed the charges against him. The misdemeanors initially were going to be handled nonjudicially through a diversion program, but Ryan and his family declined that option.
Turk said she hopes that what happened that day will come to light in the courtroom. She said the family declined a nonjudicial punishment because her son is innocent.
“My son is not going to admit to something he did not do,” she said.
Ryan was quiet as he waited for a court hearing Tuesday, his mom fluffing his curly hair while he opened and closed the zipper of his sweatshirt and stared at his highlighter-colored sneakers.
Robert Stanley, who works with the Prince William branch of the NAACP, sat a few seats away.
“Our black boys are going from high school to prison,” Stanley said, referring to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
He noted that the school resource officer involved in the arrest had several other juvenile hearings scheduled Thursday, causing him “some real concerns.”
Kavits, the schools spokesman, said the officer works at the school daily and is an important member of the community, “ensuring the safety of students and staff.”
“He is well known to students,” Kavits said, adding that county school resource officers “strive to befriend students, to keep things positive, and to solve problems.”