LAND O’LAKES — Kayla Peña filled up her water bottle then returned to her lunch table at Sunlake High School when she heard a commotion in the cafeteria on Tuesday afternoon.
A female student was riled up, walking back and forth, Peña said, screaming about the school’s dress code.
The 18-year-old heard the typical oohs and aahs from students. Then, she saw them pull out their cell phones to capture what happened next: a school resource officer grabbed the girl by the arm and wrestled her to the ground.
"He was trying to have a casual conversation and she wasn’t cooperating with him at all," Peña said. "Usually if an authority figure tells you to go back to class, you just do it … (the SRO) is usually not brought in."
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has decided that Cpl. Richard Stackon acted properly in that incident. Sheriff Chris Nocco made that announcement at a Wednesday news conference where he also defended Stackon’s actons.
The sheriff said Sun Lake’s SRO did "everything he could" to diffuse the situation.
"I think his conduct was above and beyond," Nocco said, noting that the corporal refrained from using more forceful tactics to subdue the student, such as his Taser. Stackon has spent 24 years on the force and several years as an SRO.
Before the corporal got involved, Nocco said, school administrators had asked the student to return to class several times. When she refused to leave the cafeteria, he said school officials asked the SRO to remove the student. When the corporal placed her under arrest, Nocco said, the student resisted.
The age and identity of the student was not released by the Sheriff’s Office. She was arrested on misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest without violence and disruption of a school function, the agency said.
Junior Juan Vergara, 17, was at the table next to where the incident evolved and said the student was being "extremely disrespectful" to Stackon while "cursing and yelling."
"Everyone in the cafeteria was shocked," Vergara said.
Vergara said the student repeatedly asked "What are you going to do, handcuff me?" Still, he thought the corporal was too quick to use force.
"I think that in this particular situation he acted prematurely and used an aggressive force to arrest this underaged girl," he said. "She did not pose a threat."
The Sheriff’s Office released about eight minutes of Stackon’s body camera footage Wednesday afternoon. The footage was investigated by the Sheriff’s Office’s Professional Standards Unit, which also reviewed witness statements and then cleared Stackon.
Nocco said he wanted everyone to "see a different side" of the situation.
In the video, the student was heard saying "I’m not going to hurt ..." but was cut off when she was taken down to the ground. A few minutes after that, the video showed Stackon sitting across from the student in his office.
"I was trying to be nice to you, but you didn’t (listen) ...," he said. "You think I like doing this stuff? No. I’ve done it twice because people don’t listen."
Peña said the incident didn’t reflect how Stackon usually interacts with students.
"You can tell he enjoys being at school, being with us," Pena said. "Usually you wouldn’t expect something like that to happen."
Michael Mantei, whose son is a freshman at the school, said Stackon seems like "a reasonable and very professional representative," of the school and the Sheriff’s Office.
"I found him to be very compassionate toward my son and very helpful," the father said.
Stackon worked Wednesday, but not at Sunlake High. The Pasco County school district declined to comment.
"It’s a law enforcement issue. ... We need to let the investigation run its course," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
Nocco said the student’s family has not registered a formal complaint with the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies visited them Tuesday night, but they declined to speak.
Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at [email protected] Follow @tylisajohnson.