A Binghamton City School District Board of Education meeting got heated Tuesday night amid growing tensions over the arrest of a Binghamton man earlier this month.
Several dozen community members commandeered the public comment portion of Tuesday's school board meeting to advocate for the removal of school resource officers from local school districts after a Binghamton police officer knelt on the neck of 24-year-old Hamail Waddell on Jan. 1.
Multiple bystander videos show Waddell handcuffed, laying facedown on the sidewalk and shouting "I can't breathe" as onlookers plead with the arresting officer to remove his knee from Waddell's neck.
Waddell pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest at his Jan. 18 arraignment.
The officer at the center of the Jan. 1 incident, Brad Kaczynski, has at times served as an extra duty officer at Binghamton High School, according to the district.
As a school resource coordinator employed by the Binghamton Police Department, Kaczynski's responsibilities include managing schedules and assigning shifts for other officers in the department that are stationed in local schools.
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Tensions high at Binghamton school board meeting
Binghamton Board of Education President Brian Whalen attempted multiple times to bring the meeting to order Tuesday, interrupting and chastising speakers for not properly introducing themselves, using profanity or running over the allotted three-minute speaking window.
When longtime community organizer Terri Weathers took the microphone for a second time, Whalen rose from his seat at the board table and strode toward her in a perceived attempt to seize it.
Before Whalen could reach Weathers, however, several dozen audience members descended from the risers and swarmed around her.
"He's coming for me," Weathers said. "I'm going to keep talking, though."
Whalen was escorted back to his seat by fellow board member Korin Kirk, who had earlier in the meeting successfully motioned for an extension of the allotted three-minute speaking window in an attempt to mediate between Whalen's desire to adhere to the rules of order and the audience's enthusiasm to address the board.
Several speakers pointed out a plainclothes officer seated in the front row did nothing to intervene in the situation.
"If that had happened between students in school, you can bet they would be forcibly restrained," one speaker called out.
When Whalen had earlier requested the audience keep their comments short so as to accommodate the volume of potential speakers, Citizen Action community organizer Salka Valerio warned him, "I'll call more people and we can fill public comment until 11 o'clock."
"You guys are all about rules and decency and order, so why doesn't that apply to having officers in this school if they are harming people?" said Shanel Boyce, a parent and mental health therapist. "If you don't want to sit in that seat and deal with a few moments of discomfort, then you shouldn't be in that chair."
'What happened is completely unacceptable'
She called for the school board to initiate its own independent investigation of the Jan. 1 incident and to issue an apology to Waddell's family and the community at large.
"What happened is completely unacceptable," Boyce continued, "Many of you have children. What would you be feeling, at this moment, if that was your child? There would be no platitudes, there would be no 'don't raise your voice' - that is a luxury that many of you guys get as white folks. I don't have that luxury as a Black mother."
Marcia Gates said she was frightened by the parallels between Waddell's violent police encounter and those possible for her own children.
"Hamail is a Black-Asian man. I look at this half-Asian man, and I see my half-Asian boys," she said. "I know that my sweet, goofy 18-year-old boy, my Dungeons and Dragons-loving senior, is looked at by the police as a scary brown-skinned man. I know that he knows it, and that's the worst part of it."
Residents ask district to remove school resource officers
Other speakers urged the Binghamton school board to follow the precedent set by the Rochester City School District, which removed resource officers from school grounds in June 2020. In doing so, the Rochester City Council voted to cut 4% from the city police department budget and divert the funds instead to recreation and youth services.
As an institution, school resource officers have been around for decades, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. Their presence in schools has escalated since the 1990s amid rising fears over school shootings.
Activists and community leaders across the country have increasingly come to question the efficacy of police in schools, particularly in the wake of the May 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which several armed police officers waited more than an hour to breach the elementary classrooms as a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.
The school board meeting marked the last in a trifecta of public events in which community members spoke out against Waddell's arrest.
This article originally appeared on Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin: After Hamail Waddell, Binghamton parents want officers out of schools