Distressing cellphone video of police officers arresting a student at a North Carolina HBCU following a verbal altercation with her professor has reignited debate about the use of law enforcement in education and has some people wondering: Where are Black students safe?
Police at Winston-Salem State University arrested the student in front of her class Wednesday morning after receiving a call from a university employee about a disturbance inside a classroom. The student, Leilla Hamoud, was later charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
Hamoud said in an Instagram Live post that the incident with her professor, Cynthia Villagomez, started because of a disagreement over an assignment and escalated to yelling when the professor ordered her to redo it. Hamoud said Villagomez told her to leave the classroom, but Hamoud refused because she was supposed to present a group project.
In a statement, university Chancellor Elwood Robinson said that campus police were called “after [the university employee] tried to de-escalate the situation,” and “in accordance with law enforcement procedures” the officers decided to remove the student from the classroom to ensure safety.
“We understand that the weaponization of police is a prevalent problem in our community; however, that is not what happened in this incident,” Robinson said.
But many students have adamantly disagreed, calling the chancellor’s statement “a slap in the face” and saying the incident has left them feeling unsafe on campus.
“You have these police officers being aggressive with Leila like she threatened someone or physically harmed the teacher, when Leila’s at the back of the classroom and the teacher’s at the front of the classroom,” one student told local news station WXII. “The white officer did hear Leila telling him, ‘You’re hurting me.’ And even I could see how far up her arm was twisted. I thought he was going to break her arm.”
The use of law enforcement in schools has been a hot-button issue. Supporters say school police are necessary to keep students safe, but others criticize their presence for criminalizing Black children and fueling the school-to-prison pipeline.
Students as young as 6 years old have been arrested with zip ties — because their wrists are too small for standard handcuffs — for having a temper tantrum. In Florida, a middle schooler was arrested in 2015 following a dispute with a teacher over the student’s refusal to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. In South Carolina, a sheriff’s deputy flipped a high school girl on her desk and body slammed her, before dragging and arresting her, an incident captured in a viral video.
Black students are far more likely to come into contact with law enforcement than students of other races, according to a U.S. Department of Education report. Despite only representing 15% of the student population, Black students made up nearly 32% of those arrested during the 2017-2018 school year. They made up 29% of those referred to law enforcement, according to the report.
Some incidents have been captured on video, but it has been rare to see in-classroom arrests at the college level, and almost unheard of at HBCUs.
“It’s sad enough when we see these things happening when we’re driving while Black, you know, shopping while Black, going to the park while Black, selling Girl Scout cookies while Black,” said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a civil rights attorney and professor of constitutional law. “And now attending an HBCU and still having the same vulnerability there on that campus as one would have as a young Black person anywhere in the United States. It’s a sad day for HBCUs to be seen in this way, since they were seen as safe havens.”
There are 107 HBCUs across the country, and some have struggled with facilities falling apart and low enrollment rates – a few permanently closing. But following the civil uprising of 2020, enrollment soared as Black students sought safe and nurturing environments. With corporations and philanthropists pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into HBCUs, some have attracted celebrity students and professors to their campuses.
It’s disturbing to see the administration of an HBCU allow Black students to have the threat of arrest over their heads while earning an education, Browne-Marshall said. Criminal charges, even for a low-level offense such as disorderly conduct, can set off a firestorm of issues for the person accused.
With all that Black Americans have had to overcome to get an education, the footage of Hamoud’s arrest is an understandable trigger, said Keith Taylor, an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but it doesn’t provide all the information needed to conclude that anyone acted wrongfully.
“We can relate to things that we see that appear to reflect our history and our reality of trauma. But unfortunately, sometimes what we see is not actually what happened,” Taylor said.
According to the university’s policies and regulations for students, faculty members can ask the disruptive student to leave the classroom so the lesson can continue for the other students, but if the student refuses, “the instructor may contact Campus Police to have the student physically removed from the classroom.”
Haley Gingles, the university’s chief marketing and communications officer, said in an email to Capital B on Thursday that “after administration reviewed the incident from yesterday, there is no further internal investigation at this time.” Capital B has reached out to Villagomez for comment but has not received a response.
Browne-Marshall says what happened to Hamoud should not have happened, and this is “protest worthy.”
“If the students did not understand their situation before, they need to understand that the administration must have their backs for this because this is sending a signal across the country,” she said. “There are people who are sending bomb threats to HBCUs. We’ve had an increased number of Black church burnings. And if we don’t have safety on our campuses from the racism that we find in the outside world, then where are we safe?”