Finding itself at the center of a worldwide media storm is, to put it mildly, an unfamiliar experience for the Vermilion Parish School Board.
The strain must have been great for its president, Anthony Fontana, who might have sought to relieve it by throwing Reggie Hilts under a bus. It is not unheard of for a politician to concentrate on saving his own skin and Fontana must have known he would turn off many a registered voter by backing Hilts, a sergeant in the Abbeville City Marshal's office, to the hilt.
There was no need for Hilts to explain why, in his secondary capacity as the board's "resource officer," he gave Deyshia Hargrave the bum's rush for expressing an opinion during the public-comment section of last week's board meeting. Fontana allowed that Hilts was just following orders.
While it is not easy to attach any meaning to Hilts' title, a videotape of the incident suggests that a resource officer in Vermilion Parish would not feel out of place in the paramilitary force of a dictatorship. Even there, perhaps, a burly specimen such as Hilts would hesitate to rough up a diminutive and unoffending female.
After she accompanied Hilts from the meeting room, Hargrave was wrestled to the floor, handcuffed and bundled into a paddy wagon. Once at the jailhouse, she was booked with refusing to leave the meeting she just agreed to leave and with resisting arrest. It is true that she can be heard on videotape screaming “What are you doing?” as she wriggles on the floor while Hilts towers over her, but he manhandles her at will.
Any citizen roughed up by a uniformed goon will be charged with resisting arrest; that is standard procedure all over the country, but, in the age of viral videotape, the bum rap won't stick. Abbeville City Attorney Ike Funderburk duly refused all charges against Hargrave.
By then it was clear that any other course of action might have led to a diplomatic crisis, because the video quickly racked up a couple of million hits on Youtube, and everyone who saw it seems to have taken Hargrave's side. Indeed, so widespread was the sense that her treatment was an outrageous overreaction, that death threats poured into Abbeville from every corner of the globe.
The whole brouhaha began when Hargrave rose at the meeting to protest a pay raise granted to Superintendent Jerome Puyau by a divided board. Hargrave was measured and polite but, when she continued to argue it was unfair to reward Puyau when teachers had not had a raise for years, Fontana told her to stop because her remarks were not germane to the topic under discussion.
Of course, they were, as she noted, but Hilts was wheeled out to get in her face and tell her to leave the room. Although there was a brief delay before she complied, Fontana was surely alone in seeing any justification for her arrest, let alone the violence that preceded it.
If springing to Hilts' defense was politically unwise, Fontana can only have alienated voters further by explaining that he regards them as naughty children. "If a teacher has the authority to send a student, who is acting up and she can't control, out of the classroom to the principal's office, under our policy we have the same rules," he said.
Hilts was doing “exactly what he was hired to do,” Fontana said. Evidently so, for the board must have known that its new resource officer was no stranger to violence. Last year a settlement was reached in a suit that accused Hilts of a brutal assault on an elderly and ailing civilian in his days with the Scott Police Department
Hargrave is “the one who made the choices that got her arrested,” Fontana said. Now the whole world knows that speaking your mind when invited to do so can land you in the Abbeville pokey.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.