WASHINGTON — A Prince William County 15-year-old is preparing for trial on charges that he stole a 65-cent milk carton from the school cafeteria.
The boy’s family said he’s innocent and should never have been punished. The police say this story isn’t about milk.
Last May, Ryan Turk went back to grab the milk that he forgot pick up as he went through the lunch line. His family attorney, Emmett Robinson, says the teen took part in a free lunch program and the milk was included in the meal.
When Turk sat down with the milk and his lunch, a school resource officer came up to him.
And that’s when a misunderstanding over milk turned physical.
“When he approached Ryan, he grabbed him by the back of his neck. I mean if anyone grabs you by the back of your neck, even if you’re wrong, you’d have some response to it. And he wasn’t wrong,” Robinson said.
The teen pushed away from the officer, Robinson said, but he didn’t push, hit or threaten the officer. And he put the milk back, Robinson said.
WTOP is naming the teen because his lawyer has named him publicly with the family’s permission.
In a statement, Prince William County police said it appeared the teen went through the lunch line a second time. The officer asked the student why he took the milk.
“And the student threw it back. The officer told the student they were going to walk over and talk to the principal. The student refused and became disorderly,” according to the statement.
Police said the teen “pushed against the officer. As they were approaching the principal, the student attempted to push past the officer to get away.”
But Turk’s attorney said the teen and a handful of witnesses tell a different story. He said that the officer’s “inappropriate” reaction is symptomatic of how police treat young men of color generally, whether on the streets or in school cafeterias.
“The fact you have a police officer in the school and police officers respond in a negative way to these young African-American kids tends to give them a disadvantage in that they can expect to be harassed,” said Robinson.
“We certainly don’t see this as a race-related issue,” said Prince William County schools spokesperson Phil Kavits. “We see this as a discipline situation in school that took an unfortunate turn.”
Robinson believes the “hyped” charges would have been avoided if the officer had asked a few more questions in the cafeteria. He also has concerns about the role of resource officers in schools.
“Even if he was supposed to be there as an agent of the police, what they should be doing is protecting students,” Robinson said.
Turk risks having a record over the incident. Despite that, his family declined to take part in a disciplinary class that would have allowed the student to avoid the criminal charges, Robinson said.
Instead, Turk will go to trial to face juvenile delinquent charges of larceny and creating a public disturbance in December.
“I think it’s a terrible waste of taxpayers money. We’re going to have all these people involved for 65 cents,” Robinson said.
Police said the officer had been working at Graham Park Middle School for the better part of a year at the time of the May 2016 incident.
Robinson said Turk was suspended 20 days. The teen is now in high school.