Football brawl fallout: Some allege prejudice in charging of students
Daniel Brenner | AnnArbor.com
As charges against three Pioneer football players involved in a post-game brawl make their way through the courts, some in the Ann Arbor community, including school board members, say the three are being treated unfairly because they're black.
Public outcry over the cases has grown recently after one of the three players was found responsible on a misdemeanor charge of assault and battery.
Leslie Hollingsworth, who is among those working to raise awareness of the case in the community, said it’s important for people in the community to notice the only three people charged in the brawl are black students. Hollingsworth, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, is concerned about the effect the charges will have on their futures.
"These three young men were in school, playing football for their school, and yet (only) they get charged with felonies and felonious assault, which can influence them for the rest of their lives in terms of jobs," she said.
The controversy started the night of Oct. 12 when players and coaches from the Pioneer and Huron football teams brawled at Riverbank Stadium. Three players have been charged — two are accused of kicking a Huron player in the face, causing injuries, and one is accused of swinging a crutch toward a group of players.
First student deemed responsible
Washtenaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steven Hiller said Tuesday one juvenile was found responsible for assault or assault and battery on Feb. 6. In juvenile cases, the defendants are found responsible or not responsible, rather than guilty or not guilty, Hiller said.
Both juveniles were charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, aggravated assault and assault or assault and battery.
The third student, Bashir Garain, 18, is charged with two felony counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery.
Hiller confirmed the developments in the case without releasing the names of the juveniles. It is AnnArbor.com’s policy to not name juveniles charged with a crime.
A growing controversy
The resolution of the first case is the latest development in court proceedings that have angered some members of the public, including school board Trustee Susan Baskett.
"This has been really tough and emotional for the African American community," Baskett told AnnArbor.com.
Some in the community are unhappy prosecutors declined to charge then-Huron head coach Cory Gildersleeve, then-Pioneer head coach Paul Test or then-Pioneer assistant coach Vince Wortmann. The confrontation between those three started the melee.
When Gildersleeve and Test came together at midfield after the game, the two began a screaming match, and Test alleged Gildersleeve pushed him. Wortmann shoved Gildersleeve, touching off the brawl.
Prosecutors did not charge Wortmann, deciding he believed Test was in physical danger from the younger, larger Gildersleeve. Wortmann, who is black, was fired for his actions during the brawl.
The two teenagers, who were 16 at the time of the brawl, making them juveniles in the eyes of the law, were accused of injuring Huron player Will Harris. Harris was the only person injured in the fight and said he was kicked deliberately during the struggle.
According to the Ann Arbor police report from the Oct. 12 incident, Huron assistant coach Andre Parker told police the two players repeatedly kicked Harris during the fight.
Parker told police one of the accused students tweeted an apology to Harris for the incident after the game.
Since the charges were filed against the three Pioneer players, online petitions have circulated, seeking to get Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie to drop the charges. Supporters of the juvenile student who has yet to be tried have raised questions about the ability of the public defender to provide a proper defense.
A group formed to help this student, known as Student B by supporters, has scheduled at least two fundraisers. Save Our Sons, a non-profit organization, is selling tickets for an event it's calling Strikes Against Injustice at Colonial Lanes, 1950 S. Industrial Highway, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on March 22. A similar event was scheduled for last Friday.
As of Friday, a Facebook page for Save Our Sons had 75 likes.
University of Michigan photo
Hollingsworth said there’s a lot of concern about young black men making up a disproportionate amount of the criminal population. The students got caught up in the brawl, and the criminal charges against them seem to be over the top, she said.
“I haven’t heard anyone who disagrees with how easy it is for young people, who feel they’re helping out their coaches in an emotional moment, to get involved in that kind of brawl,” she said. “To have it made a criminal situation, especially with the realization of the long-term repercussions of felonies on all of the students, was just a major concern.”
Hollingsworth said the Feb. 20 forum inspired a lot of discussion among the people in attendance and the group came away with several ideas about what to do next.
Since the meeting, supporters of the students have been writing letters to Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Donald Shelton and Mackie, urging them to dismiss the cases. The group also asked the Ann Arbor Board of Education to discuss a resolution supporting the students and objecting to the charges, a measure that's scheduled to be discussed at the regular board meeting Wednesday.
Other ideas included asking the school board to investigate the questioning of students on school property by police, attending court proceedings, encouraging other forms of punishment such as in-school suspensions and peer mediation and the fundraisers, Hollingsworth said.
Part of the discussion at the forum revolved around unintentional bias, Hollingsworth said.
“Cultural issues get involved in African American youth being over identified,” she said. “That’s something we, as a larger Ann Arbor community, we have to pay larger attention to because I don’t think the community recognizes that.”
The forum also provided insight into the experience of the students when they were arrested, Hollingsworth said. The mother of one of the charged juveniles told attendees at the forum about the day when Ann Arbor police officers came to her door to arrest her son, Hollingsworth said.
The woman said two officers came to the front door, and she invited them inside. She noticed two more around back, in addition to two others on standby, Hollingsworth said. The woman felt like the implication was her son would try to escape, even though she was being friendly to the officers, Hollingsworth said.
Eventually, the officers realized the woman was cooperating and suggested she bring her son to the police station on the next weekday so he would be processed without having to spend the night in jail. However, the experience left a bad taste in the woman’s mouth, Hollingsworth said.
“It was sort of like, as an African American person, she had to be respectful, she had to counter the stereotype, in order to protect her son,” Hollingsworth said. “It sounded like such old stuff, from just way back.”
Court cases trudge on
While the discussion about the charges heats up, the court cases are nearing their end.
Records show the juvenile found responsible was offered a plea deal just before his trial on Feb. 6, but declined to plead responsible to one count of aggravated assault. He is scheduled to return to court for a dispositional hearing at 10 a.m. on March 19.
The second juvenile is scheduled to go to trial on March 25, Hiller said. According to court records, Harris identified that student by the type of football cleats he wore during the incident.
Garain, who was charged as an adult, is scheduled to go to trial on April 1. Garain is accused of swinging a crutch toward players on the ground during the brawl.
K-12 education reporter Danielle Arndt contributed to this story.