Last December Eddie Tilsen, a senior at Minneapolis's South High, ran into school Superintendent Carol Johnson at a Christmas party. "This is what your guys did to me," he said, pointing to the swollen right side of his head, puffed eye, and the rectangular scab above his cheek in the shape of a walkie-talkie button.
Tilsen, the son of former Minneapolis School Board President David Tilsen, suffered the injuries two days earlier while pinned to the pavement outside South High by the school's police liaison officer, Jeff Seidl, and by Assistant Principal Mark Gagstetter. Tilsen admits that he provoked the incident, but has complained to the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority that Seidl overreacted.
To hear Tilsen tell it, the 18-year-old and his friend, Forrest Wozniak, were loitering in the street, blocking a Minneapolis squad car driven by another officer whom Seidl had dispatched on a police call. Seidl moved toward the two teens, presumably intending to arrest Tilsen first, but Tilsen began slowly backing away, refusing to talk to the officer. Seidl grabbed Tilsen in a headlock, and the two fell to the pavement. Seidl--though several inches taller and many pounds heavier than the 5-foot-2-inch, 130-pound Tilsen--struggled to handcuff the student. As the scuffle continued, Gagstetter, who had emerged from the school building as the incident escalated, jumped in.
Gagstetter--who Tilsen's friends say struck Tilsen with a closed fist and with a walkie-talkie--was moved to Washburn High for 30 days. Following an investigation, school administrators made no recommendation for discipline. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Department supported Seidl completely, keeping him on as the South liaison officer charged with investigating school-area crimes, arresting offenders, and serving as the school district's on-site "resource person," according to an MPD handout.
Even though the Tilsens concede that their son has a problem with authority, Barb Tilsen believes that whatever her son did, "what the adults did was completely inappropriate.
"There is a difference between dangerous streets or a prison yard and our schools," she says. "You send your kid off to school in the morning and the next time you see him you're picking him up at 2 a.m. from jail, bleeding.... I have such a deep fury that I just can't contain it all."
Apparently, Superintendent Johnson was also moved. After the Christmas party, she went to police Chief Robert Olson with a request: Move Seidl out of South, at least temporarily, to defuse the situation. Olson kicked the request to Third Precinct Commander Dave Indrehus, Seidl's supervisor. "I told the chief Seidl followed procedure to the letter and no way do I move him," Indrehus recalls. "Especially since the school's response was to move the [assistant] principal out for 30 days. If that's the way they support their staff..."
And that, say the Tilsens, is the fundamental problem. Parents entrust their children to the schools, but the school system has no power to control the police officers who oversee security. "I think one of the biggest concerns that we all share--at least communicated to me by people within the district--is that there is no way to control or make decisions about who is in the school from the police department," says Barb Tilsen. "It's pretty upsetting."
"We have had a lot of concerns and frustrations for years," confirms Minneapolis school board member Ann Berget, at whose Christmas party Eddie Tilsen confronted Johnson. Tilsen had been invited to the party by Berget's daughter, who is also a student at South. "The situation with Eddie is the clearest as far as the abuse of authority. It was clear he'd had the living bejeebers beaten out of him."
Despite Johnson's intervention and Berget's condemnation, not everyone in the school system blames Seidl. Mike Huerth, South's principal, says he stands behind the officer "100 percent." Eddie Tilsen's friends describe Loyal Brezne, an art teacher who has taught at South for 33 years, as a "straight shooter." He says, "Eddie Tilsen is lucky he didn't end up as a hood ornament."
Tilsen may have instigated the incident by dawdling in front of Seidl's squad car but Seidl's police report did not say Tilsen acted violently. Seidl refused to talk to City Pages; Indrehus says Tilsen invited the punishment by resisting arrest. Tilsen didn't use force to respond to Seidl, but he did try to twist out of the officer's grasp, according to witnesses.
"I don't care if it's the school or the street, an arrest should be handled in the same way," notes Indrehus. "We used what we call the force continuum. It's verbal--'You're under arrest'--then it's hands-on. If there's still resistance, it's nonlethal force, which might include mace, a nightstick, even a gun. You never know when the student you're dealing with might turn violent, or have a weapon. They've got to respect authority just like you or me."
Berget disagrees. "We don't have a consistent standard of behavior for everyone in the school," she argues. "There's so much turning away from obvious incidents of violence by adults that students don't have a great respect for the policy. And I think it leads to a community-wide problem, a tolerance for incivility regardless of who perpetrates the violence."
Indeed, many of Tilsen's friends portray Seidl as a grudge-holder who would seek out confrontation. "He has the reputation of being an asshole," says Mike Kilton, a South junior. Many students say he went out of his way to hand out $25 tickets for smoking--a practice Principal Mike Huerth recently discouraged, reasoning that officers with guns should reserve their confrontations for more important matters. Eddie Tilsen's friends say Tilsen openly disdained Seidl. They say that's why he, and not Wozniak, was the first of the loiterers to be arrested. (Wozniak was also arrested. Because he was found to be carrying a "Leatherman" utility tool with a 2-inch blade, he can now attend any other Minneapolis high school, but is "excluded" from South for violating the no-weapons policy. Eddie Tilsen was suspended for five days.)
Frustrated by police unwillingness to review Seidl's actions, the Tilsens have filed a complaint with Civilian Review. Eddie Tilsen will stand trial on a charge of disorderly conduct and "interfering with a police process" in May, the same month Barb Tilsen plans a community meeting to find other parents whose children have had problems with police in the schools.
Whatever frustrations there have been have not translated into many formal complaints. Paula Forbes, the school district's general counsel, says there has been only one other court case involving a liaison officer in the past five years. Civilian Review has fielded only "two or three" complaints since 1991, according to CPRA program assistant Jackie Hillestad. And Lt. Robert Skomra, supervisor of the MPD's Internal Affairs Unit, says there have been no complaints since he was placed in charge in June 1995.
Nevertheless, Berget says, the issue of police conduct in schools regularly "heats up and appears on everybody's radar screens, then [disappears when] other things come up.
"That we're not constantly on red alert says to me that most officers are appropriate and helpful, but a few are not," she says. "We tend to get all riled up about incidents, then we fall back on day-to-day running of [the] district, and little changes."
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