When a school resource officer kneeled on a black Ferris High School student's neck — more than a year before an officer in Minneapolis used the same maneuver, killing George Floyd — students reacted in horror.
A school counselor who witnessed the student being restrained by resource officer Shawn Audie says she heard the student say, "I can't breathe," school records show. Later, dozens of students staged a walkout to protest what they saw as the officer's racist treatment of the student. Community members were "outraged" at the pictures taken of the teenager pinned to the ground.
But Kevin Morrison, then the interim director of safety and security for Spokane Public Schools, wrote to Audie a week later and expressed sympathy.
On Jan. 29, according to an email thread obtained by the Inlander, someone messaged Audie to thank him for his work, five days after the incident at Ferris High School. "Despite a few protestors and ill-informed critics, a great many support you and appreciate the often thankless job you have. Keep up the great work," the message said.
Audie forwarded that to Morrison, who responded to say that he "echoed" the "sentiment below."
He went on to dismiss social media posts circulating, which at the time depicted Audie kneeling on the student's neck.
"The decisions we ask our CRO's [campus resource officers] to make in a fraction of a second are always going to be under public scrutiny — especially when a photograph, video or single narrative is used irresponsibly," Morrison wrote to Audie. "I am a life-long resident of Spokane. Our public is wiser than a Facebook post."
Morrison is now a member of the Spokane Public Schools board of directors, and last week he voted in favor of a racial equity resolution that could eliminate the ability of any school employees to arrest students. But his comments from more than a year ago during his time as the acting director of safety and security are facing renewed criticism.
Last week, a petition began circulating demanding his resignation from the school board based on comments he made to the Inlander in February 2019 in which he said he had "no reason to believe that there was an unreasonable use of any kind of force on any individual," referring to Audie pinning the black teenager's neck down.
"The more I thought about his statement, the more upsetting it was," Perry says. "He had just voted in favor with the rest of the board, unanimously, to pass an anti-racism resolution, but has not once seen his statement as problematic."
Morrison, reached by the Inlander, now says he does think it was an unreasonable use of force. He says "there's remorse" for his own reaction at the time, but Morrison stopped short of apologizing for his statements made a year ago or saying he was wrong.
"I would have to take it into context of the time, and the information I had at the time. Obviously my thinking has changed quite a bit," Morrison says. "If I was defending [resource officers], it's because I defend the work they're doing, because we don't have another system in place."
A day after he sent the email sympathizing with Audie, the Inlander published an article on Feb. 1 detailing Audie's history of alleged excessive force during his time as a Spokane County Sheriff's Deputy. Audie had been sued in federal court three times for alleged violent behavior during arrests.
In 2013, he applied a neck restraint that killed a man named William Berger. Audie was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, and a federal jury said that Audie did not use excessive force. But that jury wrote an unusual note to the judge saying that "we have reservations regarding the actions of Deputy Audie on June 6, 2013."
Audie retired as a deputy in lieu of termination following an internal investigation when Audie allegedly choked a suspect, dug his knee into his spine and kicked him while the suspect lay on the ground.
Morrison stresses that he was not involved in hiring Audie. Rather, Audie was hired when Mark Sterk, former Spokane County Sheriff, was the director of safety and security for the school district.
The incident at Ferris occurred on Jan. 24. According to district records, it began over an argument between two students about a pair of shoes. Witnesses say they got in each other's face before a principal assistant stepped in. Something caused the principal assistant to spill his water bottle — possibly a shove by a student — and that's when Audie took the black student to the ground, eventually pinning the teenager face down with his shin. When the student's brother saw this — amid a chaotic scene that injured multiple staff members — he tried to pull Audie off, witnesses say. The brothers were arrested for assault.
The district's initial investigation found that Audie did not use excessive force. But the "new information" presented to the district about Audie's past led human resources to review Audie's application starting Feb. 1. Ultimately, Audie resigned.
However, the Spokane Public Schools policy on restraint says any practice "interfering with a child's breathing" is presumed to be "unreasonable." Dan Ophardt, a staff attorney with TeamChild and a member of the Every Student Counts Alliance student advocacy group, has demanded Morrison apologize for defending Audie, in part because he says Morrison was simply wrong to say that Audie's actions were justified by district policy.
In an interview Wednesday with the Inlander, Morrison says that a year ago he didn't have any indication that the breathing of the student was being restricted. But when it was pointed out that witnesses and a counselor gave statements recounting that the student said that he couldn't breathe, Morrison says, "I'd have to refresh my memory to that time."
But while he says Audie was doing his duty to protect students and staff around him, he says it was "wrong" what happened to the student. He says he disagrees with restraining students by kneeling on their neck, adding that he apologized to the family personally.
"That shouldn't be the way that we treat students or adults," Morrison says. "That's not how you should be able to restrain another human being."
"How can they or their families trust him to make the right decisions for their families?" she says. "He should not hold a position to be able to do so much damage to so many."
"Why wouldn't you?" Hill says. "I don't understand why you wouldn't reassess your employees' behaviors especially knowing what's happening now and especially knowing the history of that officer [Audie]."
Morrison says that he doesn't think school employees should act as law enforcement. Part of the reason he ran for school board is so that he could enact change, he says.
"The main regret that I have is that as the interim director of safety and security, I didn't have, I guess, more ability to legislate policies, procedures and trainings," he says.
"It's one of the reasons I ran because I think we can effect some change," Morrison says. "I am trying to affect it through policy and procedure at the highest level we can. And no one knows better than I what that should look like in a school, because I've seen both sides."
The situation at Ferris, he says, had an "enormous impact on me."
Hill doesn't think Morrison's statements are sincere.
"That's just saving face," she says. "That's an after-the-fact situation. I don't think it's genuine. I don't think there's a genuine concern for the experience that kids of color are having in our school system."