LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Sometimes, people have a profound impact on our lives, shifting its trajectory. This story in our ongoing Missed Connections series begins at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore.
GREG MCKELVEY: So when I was in high school, the police officer that was stationed in my school would oftentimes sort of call me and a lot of my friends out of class into his office.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg McKelvey was a junior. Andrew Halbert was the school resource officer, the police department's representative to Southridge High.
ANDREW HALBERT: At the school, there was a rather rampant theft issue - anything that was easily picked up - so, like, a graphing calculator, iPod, iPhone, any sort of small electronic that was easy to take. It was a group of probably four to five people that were consistently being implicated in thefts.
MCKELVEY: They thought that it was this group of friends that I had. It was a predominantly white school.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg McKelvey is black. He says the few black students at Southridge hung out together.
MCKELVEY: And so in that group, they thought that we were responsible for the calculators that were going missing. And they viewed me as sort of the leader of that group. And so I think that led them to want to find out if I knew where the calculator was - or multiple calculators.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew Helbert followed his leads in addition to his other duties.
HALBERT: Selfishly, I would rather be doing outreach in education than taking theft reports. But I was also getting pressure from the school and parents who were the victims of these thefts to actually start doing something about this. So I started a broader investigation and just started collecting information.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: An investigation that Halbert says included interviews, digital forensics and culminated in a search warrant for Greg McKelvey's home.
MCKELVEY: Next thing I know, they're barging through the door in riot gear. And my grandma comes to the door. And from there, they just go through my entire room looking for my laptop so that they could try and get information about calculators.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This all happened in 2010. Greg McKelvey went on to law school and became active in the Black Lives Matter movement. He first told his story on Twitter as part of a local government debate about having police officers in schools. He wanted to illustrate how they're not always a reassuring presence, particularly to students of color.
MCKELVEY: I knew I wasn't a criminal. But that's all I knew. And so it was really scary and sort of - it changes the whole way that you go through high school when you're afraid that you might get pulled out of class at any given time because of a police officer. And it changes the attitude of the students around you when they know that you're constantly being talked to by the police officers. It makes it hard to do homework when you think that police officers might come into your home. So it really impacts, I think, every part of your high school life in a way that, I think, most people - including, probably, the officers - don't really think about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew Halbert is no longer a police officer. Shortly after this incident, he also went on to law school. The men agreed to meet on air, where they still see what happened at the end of that school year almost a decade ago in very different ways. Halbert says Greg McKelvey's tweets caught him off guard.
HALBERT: I was surprised because I've been out of law enforcement for some time. My opinion - and you have to understand that this is now a decade removed. I always think that the conversation should be ongoing. And it needs to be a conversation. The analogy that I've used is we used to have the DARE program. And that was found to be largely ineffective. And so it's important to look and evaluate at what is being done.
I still think that the value of a school resource officer is incredibly important. I think in many cases, it's an opportunity to bridge the gap between the, quote, unquote, "scary police officer" that you see driving around and try and find ways for conversations to be had about, what are the realities of police work? And conversely, what are the realities that these students experience with law enforcement in their own communities?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Greg, speaking with Andrew, he detailed to us a very thorough investigation. Is there something, perhaps, in your perceptions that you think may be different had you known the circumstances around what happened?
MCKELVEY: No, I don't think that changes it. I think that when you have black students being afraid that, you know, multiple officers are going to come through their door, they're going to be pulled out of class or arrested at track practice, and you have white students that are afraid that maybe they might get detention, I think that that discrepancy is worth talking about.
And then just on the note of having officers in schools so that they can bridge the gap in the community - I mean, no other profession is awarded that. I don't see why officers are there to do that. If officers were in the community not doing the scary police officer things, then there would be no reason to have to bridge that gap.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew, watching the news and seeing how cops are more likely to view black boys as a threat and the statistics that show that they are treated differently, was that something apparent to you when you worked as a school resource officer? Was that something that they had trained you for?
HALBERT: I mean, there wasn't any specific training for that. In the - our department as a whole, they put a tremendous value on treating all people equally. They took a lot of steps and made efforts to track statistics for the race classification that we had contact with to help make sure that officers are not making decisions based off race because that is, clearly, something that should not happen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm curious to know from you, Andrew, looking back, would you have done something differently, maybe, knowing what you know? I know you've left law enforcement. But would you have done something differently?
HALBERT: I feel comfortable in my decision-making. But again, I would always hope that the formal adjudication or formal criminal path is not the No. 1 option to use. And so my hope would have been that an earlier intervention could have had a more positive outcome.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg, you're now an activist. Was this an experience that was formative for you?
MCKELVEY: I mean, never once did I think that Officer Halbert was just some racist, white cop, you know, that was just out to get black kids. But when we're having this conversation about equity and treating everybody equal, I think that we're not talking about the inherent biases that all of us hold. It's not necessarily, why would you do this investigation? But what were better ways to do it? Like, could it be better if the black kids were getting detention or, you know, a talking to by the vice principal the same way as white kids in these white-majority schools are?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And your perspectives on this event are still different. Would you say that, Andrew?
HALBERT: Yes, I would say that's correct.
MCKELVEY: I think that there's context that both of us are missing on either side. But I don't think that there's any disagreement on the impact that this would have on me or on students that experience similar things throughout the country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg McKelvey says he was never charged with stealing calculators. Andrew Halbert says he passed the case to his successor and doesn't know how or even if it was resolved. Both men have agreed to keep up the conversation off air.
Do you have something you'd like to revisit and talk through with someone from your past - some unfinished business? Let us know. Call us and leave a message with your name and number and a brief summary of your story at 202-216-9217. That number again - 202-216-9217 - or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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