Rally for Justice
Several organizations came together Aug. 31 in Whitehall to hold a Rally for Justice in support of two Whitehall High School students who allegedly suffered injuries at the hands of Whitehall Township police during a January incident on the Whitehall-Coplay School District campus.
The event, held at Schadt Avenue Park, was organized by POWER (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) Lehigh Valley, an interfaith group that works to improve race relations, advocate for economic justice and promote civic engagement.
Allison Mickel, communications coordinator for POWER Lehigh Valley, spoke at the rally to decry the actions of the Whitehall Township Police Department at that game in January.
“No matter what your religious background is,” she said, “you know that what happened in that high school that day was wrong.”
Two WHS boys basketball games were canceled Jan. 28 after four students, all juveniles, reportedly became disruptive and police were called, according to a statement released at that time by the Whitehall-Coplay School District.
According to a statement from WCSD Superintendent Dr. Lorie Hackett, the athletic director, in maintaining safety, acted appropriately in asking the students to leave an unsupervised area in the high school during the basketball game.
“After several unsuccessful attempts to get the students to leave the unsupervised area and return to the gym, they were then asked to leave the event,” Hackett said.
Whitehall Township police officers were then asked to assist. The juveniles refused numerous requests by officers to leave, police said. When officers attempted to take the juveniles into custody, they were surrounded by other juveniles who “physically attempted to block the officers from a lawful arrest,” according to Whitehall Police Lt. Gregory Bealer.
Officers from multiple agencies responded to assist in controlling the area. Bealer said the four juveniles were then taken into custody.
The juveniles were charged in juvenile court with numerous offenses, including inciting a riot, which is a felony. According to reports, they were also charged with defiant trespass, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of the administration of the law, all misdemeanors.
The felony charge was later dropped.
Lawsuits have been filed against Whitehall Township, Whitehall Township Mayor Michael Harakal Jr., Whitehall Township Police Department, Whitehall-Coplay School District, Hackett and athletic director Bob Hartman, according to attorney Matthew Mobilio.
Later in her speech, Mickel said, “The law firm is here representing them because what happened on that day was legally wrong, but we are here because it was morally wrong.”
According to Mobilio, the lawsuit alleges the school and its employees created a danger to the public at large by enacting policies that place armed police at school events and instructing them to use force in response to minor disturbances.
Mobilio said his team had attempted to reach out to attorneys for the police department and school district to begin a discussion but never received any “substantive” response. The first communication from the school district came Aug. 29, he said, in the form of a list of requirements of conduct for those who would be attending the rally.
The second communication, he said, came the morning of the rally, when organizers were told they could no longer hold the event on the grounds of Whitehall High School. It was reported a counterprotest was being planned and threats of violence had been made.
A few individuals not affiliated with the rally gathered near the event but stood and watched from a distance.
Speaking during the rally, Mobilio made some demands of his own - no more police in schools, no choke holds on children and mandatory body cameras for law enforcement in Whitehall.
Police accountability and removal of school resource officers were a consistent theme for all speakers at the rally, including Allentown City Councilman Joshua Siegel, Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley and state representative candidate Enid Santiago.