Teenager Cuffed and Beaten by School Cop over “Spirit Day” Costume
Thirteen-year-old Lennox Seaforth Jr. arrived at Drew Freeman Middle School on On Dec. 2, 2010, excited to show off his outfit for the school’s Spirit Week. During that week, the Prince George’s County public school elected to have a different theme for each day. Monday had been “Crazy Hat” day, while Tuesday had been “Dress for Success” day. That day’s theme was “70s and 80s,” which encouraged students, staff and faculty to dress in retro attire. For instance, one teacher dressed as a hippie, while some students dressed as rapper LL Cool J. An honor-roll student, Seaforth dressed as rapper Ice Cube’s character from the ’90s movie Boyz n the Hood.
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During his lunch period, Seaforth was approached by Officer Wantalex Tilus of the Prince George’s County Police Department. According to Seaforth’s attorney, the officer was on cafeteria duty in his community policing capacity that day. Officer Tilus questioned whether Seaforth was “gangbanging,” to which Seaforth replied “no.” Seaforth then sat down with his friends.
Officer Tilus suddenly approached Seaforth and lifted him out of his seat by his collar, according to the complaint filed on Nov. 28, 2011. The officer then pushed the student against a wall face first and cuffed him. Seaforth was led out of the cafeteria and into the band hall where Officer Tilus proceeded to chide him about his costume and smack him twice, leaving welts.
Seaforth’s mother, Latoya Mason, filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf against the officer and the Prince George County School Board alleging, among other things, false arrest, false imprisonment, excessive force, and assault and battery. She is seeking several million dollars for the humiliation her son suffered as a result of Officer Tilus’ actions.
“Ms. Mason is a single mother doing the best she can, which is an excellent job,” says Mason’s attorney J. Wyndal Gordon. “You can imagine the distress this has caused to her and her entire family.”
School Gives the Run Around
Gordon says that Officer Titus had no probable cause for arresting Seaforth. He believes Officer Titus homed in on the student for his manner of dress.
“He placed my client in handcuffs for merely dressing like a character from Boys n the Hood for school Spirit Week no less,” Gordon says.
When Gordon tried initially to get the name of the officer from the school district, the authorities remained tight-lipped. Instead, he had to file two Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the officer’s identity. And what he discovered was surprising.
“My understanding is he went from being on the drug task force, to being put on duty at the middle school,” Gordon says. “I don’t know if that was a perfect match for him. Obviously he has his street mentality when dealing with young children.”
There is also allegedly a security tape of the cafeteria that depicts Officer Tilus first in conversation with Seaforth and then picking up the student, pushing him against the wall and handcuffing him.
“I’ve requested a copy of the video, but I have not received it yet,” Gordon says. “We tried to have the officer prosecuted, but the school board wouldn’t assist us. We called the police, but they wouldn’t take our phone calls. This has been going on for a long time.”
Despite the run-in with Officer Tilus, Seaforth received no disciplinary action from the school. In fact, Gordon believes that the school’s principal, Marla Dean, was unaware of the incident until the complaint was filed with the court.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for Prince George’s County Public Schools said the district does not discuss ongoing litigation and stated that Officer Tilus was not an “employee-officer” of the district.
Keith Ecker co-authors the Lawyers.com blog.
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