An attorney for one of the teachers seen restraining a student in a video that went viral from Ponchatoula Junior High School in March said the school superintendent capitulated to pressure from public opinion when she fired him earlier this week.
“My client got fired because he happened to be a white teacher breaking up a fight between two black kids. Period,” attorney Tony Clayton said in an interview Friday.
Clayton is representing English teacher and school disciplinarian Rusty Barrilleaux.
Both teachers seen in the video were dismissed, Mona Icamina, a representative from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, confirmed Friday.
The Tangipahoa Parish schools superintendent said the video that circulated on social media last week showing two teachers physically restrain…
Superintendent Melissa Stilley declined to speak on the issue, saying in an email, "We can’t comment on any specific personnel actions for our employees at this time.” She previously called the video “disturbing” but said a full investigation needed to be done.
"Anyone that watched that video, if they're honest, would say it was very disturbing and upsetting to see that and the things that were said to the student," Stilley told Action News 17, a local television station in the Florida Parishes in a video posted April 2.
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The school system had been conducting an investigation since March 28 when the student’s mother posted the video to Facebook. It shows two teachers trying to pin down the girl on the concrete, with one of the teachers cursing the student as the other teacher drags her by the leg.
The video sparked outrage across social media.
Authorities said the video shows the aftermath of a fight between two students that the teachers were trying to break up.
In defense of his client, Clayton pointed to a video he says captures the moments before the two teachers intervened. That video shows two girls grabbing at the other’s shirts and punching each other in the head as more students stand by in the courtyard. At the end of the 11-second clip, a teacher Clayton identified as Brett Chatelain can be seen pulling one of the girls away from the fight.
“The other kid let her go, and she and Mr. Chatelain went down to the ground, which put Mr. Chatelain on top of her torso,” Clayton said.
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Barrilleaux can be seen in the widely shared video pulling the girl by the leg on the concrete. Clayton said he grabbed the girl’s leg to keep her from kicking Chatelain.
“Rusty Barrilleaux merely came in to help control the situation,” Clayton said, adding later, “Any man worth his salt would’ve stopped those kids from hurting one another.”
Efforts to reach Chatelain, a physical education teacher, were unsuccessful Friday.
Clayton said Barrilleaux was vindicated by an evaluation of the incident from Bruce Chapman, president of Handle With Care, a company hired by the school system to train school staff on appropriate discipline.
In an email shared by Clayton, Chapman says his opinion based on the two videos is that the two teachers used “a minimal degree of force to control this student; in a manner consistent with a ‘reasonable person standard.’
“Be also advised that training in effective physical intervention strategies and methods prior to this incident would have allowed them to use even less force,” Chapman wrote.
Clayton is also claiming that Barrilleaux was tenured and thus should have had a due process hearing before he could have been terminated. In an April interview with ActionNews17, Stilley said both teachers were tenured, although Clayton said Stilley later denied that Barrilleaux had tenure.
In the weeks since the incident, Barrilleaux has received threats and had to move his family to an undisclosed area for safety, Clayton said. But Barrilleaux stands by his actions, Clayton said.
Ponchatoula Police investigated the fight and submitted their findings to District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, who has not yet said whether he'll seek charges against the teachers or the students. Clayton said police wanted to arrest the student who had been restrained but Barrilleaux told officers "he didn't want her to endure this."
John Williams, an attorney for the family of the girl seen in the viral video, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Three weeks after the incident, the girl seen restrained on the ground and her mother, Althea Abron, were both arrested by the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office on an unrelated investigation. Authorities searched the house regarding burglaries allegedly committed by the girl’s older brother. The girl was arrested for interfering in a police investigation and held for six days at the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center. Abron was arrested on an outstanding warrant for identity theft, as well as new counts of child endangerment and drug possession after deputies found some marijuana in a Pringles chip can.
Williams previously said he believed the arrests were retaliatory.