Judge: School officer's version of clash with a parent was not credible

Parent LaKanya Eskridge after her clash with a school officer. She was charged with assault and acquitted.
Parent LaKanya Eskridge after her clash with a school officer. She was charged with assault and acquitted.
Posted: December 18, 2011

When the city police officer entered the room, she saw LaKanya Eskridge, her face covered in blood.

"There was blood coming from her eyes, her nose, her mouth," Officer Cheryl Newton testified in court. "There was blood all over the place."

Eskridge begged Newton not to leave her: "He's going to hit me again," Eskridge told Newton, according to court testimony.

It was Eskridge, however, who was arrested that day, Nov. 22, 2010, at Beeber Middle School in the Overbrook area, where her son was a student. She was charged with assaulting John Baker Jr., a school police officer employed by the Philadelphia School District.

The trial judge acquitted Eskridge, 31, on July 22.

"Credibility is not with your police officer here today," Judge Peter Rogers said of Baker, according to the court transcript.

Baker is a 25-year veteran of the 436-member school police force, and regarded as a "good officer," according to his union president.

But the fact that Eskridge told Baker he wasn't a "real cop," according to testimony from a witness, led her to challenge his authority and played a role in the fracas.

Baker said he was upset that she "disrespected me twice," according to testimony from Newton.

Unlike city police, school officers are not authorized to carry weapons, or to make arrests. They do carry handcuffs and are able to detain students and others on school property for infractions.

As The Inquirer reported this year, they do not undergo psychological or drug screening, nor are they trained at the police academy.

The city and School District are now looking at upgrading screening and training requirements.

Newton testified that when she arrived on the scene, she believed Baker had assaulted Eskridge, who had a broken eye socket and a bruised jaw, her braces jammed into her gum. Her sergeant, however, ordered her to place Eskridge under arrest, she testified.

Eskridge subsequently hired a lawyer, who filed a notice in August that she will sue the district and Baker. She said he punched her in the face that day and beat her even after she was handcuffed while her 13-year-old son, Bysil, watched.

"This is not just about money," said her lawyer, Stephanie Sawyer. "We want him disciplined."

Chief Inspector Myron Patterson, who oversees school safety, said no action had been taken against Baker, and pointed out that city police detectives charged Eskridge - not Baker.

"It was investigated. . . . That's the process. It's not up to me to interfere with the process," Patterson said. "They didn't find him culpable at that particular time."

Baker did not return a call seeking comment.

Michael Lodise, president of the police officers union, said Baker has had no disciplinary infractions during his lengthy career.

"He's been at that school forever," Lodise said. "He said he was just defending himself."

Eskridge, a senior nurse's aide at a local hospital, said she was at home that day when she got the call from her mother: One of her son's friends reported that Baker had Bysil in custody.

Eskridge said in an interview that she had been concerned about Baker for months. Her son and others told her that he was a "bully," she said, adding that she had seen him walk the school grounds with a club in his hand, intimidating students. (School police are barred from carrying any sort of weapon, according to school spokesman Fernando Gallard. Baker did not carry a club, Gallard said.)

She also had complained that the school had failed to follow her son's individualized education plan, as required under special-education law. Her son, she said, became frustrated in class because he has a learning disability and the school wasn't helping him.

That day, her son's friends said he had kicked a trash can, then tried to leave the room, but the teacher blocked his way.

Eskridge found Bysil in Baker's office, along with his special-education teacher and classroom teacher. Baker's two young children, who had come over from a nearby elementary school, were there too, sitting on a couch.

Eskridge was incensed that her son had been brought to the room and admitted she repeatedly cursed. Baker warned her not to use that language in front of his children. She continued.

Accounts of what happened next differ.

Eskridge says Baker flipped over a desk and attacked her.

"He grabbed my neck from behind and slammed my head on the wall," Eskridge said. In the hallway, "he continued to keep hitting me. He hit my head so many times on the floor that I was in and out of consciousness."

Debra Brown, the special-education teacher, testified that Eskridge was "ranting" at Bysil's classroom teacher and told Baker that he "wasn't a real cop" and that her son didn't have to listen to him. Brown said that no desk was flipped and that Eskridge raised a fist to Baker and swung at him.

Brown said she didn't see Eskridge hit Baker. Baker testified that Eskridge hit him in the face with her forearm.

The two, Brown testified, then struggled as Baker attempted to cuff Eskridge. They ended up on the floor in the hall.

Baker testified that they "fell." But in earlier statements to detectives, which he was asked to read in court, he said he used his body to push her toward the door. "I had to use my weight to force her to the floor," he also wrote.

The large-framed Baker, now on top of Eskridge, punched her several times in the shoulders and rib area to get her to release her arms so he could handcuff her, according to court testimony.

Bysil took Baker's police radio and hurled it, Brown testified, just missing the officer. Baker punched Bysil in the face as the boy grabbed for his handcuffs, according to court testimony.

When that didn't stop the struggle, Bysil hit Baker in the back with a wet mop and pulled a fire alarm, Brown testified.

"He was hoping real police would come, which is what did happen," said Sawyer, the family's lawyer.

After Baker cuffed Eskridge, she testified that he took her into his office and beat her some more.

Baker testified that Eskridge "danced" around the room and threatened to have him killed and sue him.

When city police officers arrived, they knocked until Baker opened the door. The officers uncuffed Eskridge.

"We uncuffed her because she had so many injuries. It was just crazy," Newton testified.

Eskridge went to Lankenau Hospital for treatment, then was jailed overnight - a terrifying experience, she said. Bysil also was charged with assault and locked up; he was found not guilty in juvenile court, Sawyer said.

Baker differed in his own statements about the incident on how many times Eskridge hit him or attempted to hit him. Asked which statement was correct, he testified that he didn't know.

"I've got two versions of what happened and how it happened and the order in which it happened," the judge said. "I'm not supposed to guess which one. [Baker] doesn't even know which one is the correct version."

The judge also questioned the injuries to Eskridge.

"How do you explain all these injuries?" he asked the prosecutor.

"I think that it was a pretty intense struggle," the prosecutor said.

"I'm sure it was," the judge responded. He added: "I do not find that this defendant assaulted the police officer given that his first version of what happened was that he was moving her with his body, whatever that means."

Bysil never returned to Beeber. Eskridge didn't feel safe sending him back. He was enrolled in a private school, which is paid for by the district.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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