Georgia Tech police have continued to arrest people for their alleged roles in a campus protest more than two weeks ago. Most of them have been students from metro Atlanta colleges.
Tech police have arrested at least six people they say were involved in the protest, including a current Tech student and others enrolled at Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College.
The protest followed a vigil for Scout Schultz, a Georgia Tech student shot and killed by campus police last month. The most recent arrest was just this Monday, for misdemeanor obstruction of law enforcement.
WABE legal analyst Page Pate says tracking people down after a protest is unusual.
“There’s no ongoing crime,” Pate said. “And even outside of a demonstration like this, you rarely see an active investigation for the misdemeanor offense of willful obstruction of an officer.”
He says the continued arrests are meant to send a message.
“That you better be careful when you show up and protest at the school or about something that the school has done, and I think that’s a disturbing sign,” said Pate, who worried about a chilling effect.
“You show up to something like this, even if we’re not going to arrest you, we may show up at your school weeks later and want to question you or pull you out of class, wanna contact your parents and say we want to interview you,” he said.
Concerns have been ongoing within the Tech community of unwanted radical elements. Posts about “Antifa” populate the school’s social media threads. In a statement following the protest, Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson wrote to the school, “We believe many of them were not part of our Georgia Tech community, but rather outside agitators intent on disrupting the event.”
“If this was a legitimate investigation into some sort of violent organized activity, there are ways to handle that other than investigating people for wearing masks and not following orders at the time,” Pate said.
Frank Rotondo, who heads the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said sometimes, arrests are necessary. During the Tech protest, someone set a police car on fire, and two officers were treated for minor injuries. Arrests made that night included charges for aggravated assault on an officer.
Rotondo agrees the police are sending a message.
“To stop the negative activity and to make it safe for all the students, the instructors there and the police themselves,” Rotondo said. “They want the campus to go back to normal tranquility.”
However, he added that more transparency from the school would be ideal.
“I would love for the administration to say, ‘Look, here’s the basis of the obstruction charge; here’s the basis of the inciting to riot charge,’” said Rotondo, who noted the Georgia Tech Police Department’s positive reputation among the state’s law enforcement agencies.
He believes that ultimately the court system is meant to sort out the legitimacy or seriousness of any arrests.
Eugene O’Donnell lectures at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He’s a former NYPD officer and prosecutor who describes himself as a “hawk,” and “no softie” when it comes to arresting people for criminal offenses. He says police should be a last resort when it comes to campus protests.
“There are lots of ways to hold students accountable, and if we don’t have enough with academic oversight, then we can explore other ways,” O’Donnell said. He said that could involve working with other schools in the university system.
“We want to see young people concerned about the society, concerned about things that are larger than themselves. We want to see them speak out when they see injustice. We want to promote that, and the lines of doing that aren’t always clear,” O’Donnell said.
He said the criminal charges that end up on students’ records may become obstacles to future careers and full participation in public life. “It’s a high price for a student to pay for an overzealous expression of concern,” O’Donnell said.
In a statement, Georgia Tech spokesperson Lance Wallace confirmed the school’s police investigations are ongoing.
“Evidence was used to identify the individuals arrested on misdemeanor obstruction charges and indicated that they took physical actions in an attempt to encourage violence and prevent officers from making arrests at the scene. No one is being targeted because they protested,” Wallace said.
Following discussions and demands from student activists, Georgia Tech’s president has announced the formation of campus “action teams,” which will review the school’s mental health access, LGBT support and campus culture.
The arrests are one way Schultz’s shooting death and its fallout continue to be felt across metro Atlanta schools. Mental health impacts could be another.
Friends and family say Schultz’s former girlfriend — they’d broken up over the summer — took her own life this past weekend. They say grief, ongoing mental health issues and a fear of criminal consequences may all have contributed to the GSU student’s state of mind leading up to the suicide.
Naiki Kaffezakis, a Tech student and longtime friend, told WABE the 22-year-old had been at the campus protest.
“There’s definitely a sense that anyone who was there could be arrested,” said Kaffezakis. “Her exact words were ‘Naiki, I’m not strong enough to be arrested.’”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age individuals.