March 16, 2004

Sideways ballcap lands Scottsdale teenager in jail

Sideways ballcap lands Scottsdale teenager in jail

Emily Bittner
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 13, 2004 12:00 AM

By most accounts, Marlon Morgan is a great kid. The soft-spoken junior plays basketball for Saguaro High School. He was nominated for Youth of the Year last year by a branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Scottsdale.

So why were his classmates wearing "Free Marlon" T-shirts last week?

The 17-year-old had just been arrested on campus during lunch for wearing his baseball cap sideways instead of to the front and refusing to turn it the other way.

Morgan, who is Black, believes he was singled out. Other teens in the same room were wearing their hats that way.

His family criticized both police and school officials' handling of the incident, which happened March 5, the day before spring break. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Morgan's mother are meeting Wednesday with Scottsdale Police Chief Alan Rodbell and Scottsdale Unified School District officials.

Morgan was suspended from school for three days, beginning Monday when Saguaro returns from spring break. Though he was held in a jail cell at police headquarters for several hours, he wasn't charged. He was held on suspicion of disorderly conduct, failure to obey a police officer, trespassing and interfering or disrupting an educational institution.

School officials and police defended their actions.

Scottsdale police Detective Sam Bailey said Officer Brian Zeller, who is assigned to the school, knows the teen and didn't want to arrest him. "From what I gather, he's a pretty good kid," Bailey said. But the officer was worried the situation could escalate because other students were starting to gather.

Morgan was having lunch when Saguaro security guards approached him about his hat. It is against school policy to wear hats sideways because it can be a sign of disrespect for authority, the police report said, but Morgan said that the rule is enforced selectively. According to a police report, he pointed to several White students whose hats were on sideways.

"Usually I don't have a problem, (but) when you walk around you see everyone else with their hats like that. I just kind of got fed up with it," he told The Arizona Republic.

When Morgan wouldn't do as the security guards and three assistant principals asked, Officer Zeller was called in.

The police officer also told Morgan to straighten his hat, and he didn't.

Assistant Principal Steve Salcito ordered Morgan to the school office, but the teen didn't move, police said.

Salcito told Morgan he was being suspended for insubordination and was trespassing on school grounds, according to the police report.

Morgan said he stood up to leave. But according to the report, he told Zeller he wasn't going anywhere. "I didn't think he (Zeller) was going to arrest me," Morgan said.

But Bailey said that at one point Morgan turned around, held his hands behind his back and said, "Just put the cuffs on."

Although Morgan and his mother, Bobbie Morgan, said his behavior was rebellious, they denounced the school's reaction as "uncalled for."

"I shouldn't have had to walk out of there in handcuffs in front of all my friends," Marlon Morgan said.

Shortly after Morgan's arrest, classmates staged a protest with one student being suspended for 10 days.

A spokesman for the school district said the guards and principals acted appropriately. "School officials did everything they were supposed to do," said Tom Herrmann, a spokesman for the Scottsdale Unified School District. Herrmann declined to comment on the dispute's specifics.

Morgan's mother said security guards need better training to deal with students. She also questioned the police presence at the school.

"When does school discipline stop and you start using police officers to do the job of the principal and the vice principal and the parents?" she asked.

Bailey said such an incident normally wouldn't involve police, but the officer got involved because the student defied officials.

The Rev. Oscar Tillman, head of the local NAACP and a former school board member, said schools rely too heavily on police officers on campus to resolve conflict. "I would not even dream of the principal or security calling in the police," Tillman said. "Police are not the disciplinarians for the school."

Sophomore Della Rhodes, 15, was sitting one table away from Morgan when the dispute happened. "I didn't think it was a big deal," she said, adding that lots of students wear their hats turned to the side. "That's just how the style is now," Rhodes said. "I've never seen anybody get in trouble for it."

Blacks make up only 2 percent of the students at Saguaro, which is near Hayden Road and McDonald Drive.

Morgan's adult supporters praised him. Morgan has been coming to the Boys & Girls Clubs' Rose Lane branch for years. He has worked the front desk and now watches kids while they play outdoors.

"He's a very responsible young man and a good role model," said Mandy Terre, a youth development supervisor the Boys & Girls Clubs.

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