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Teen Goes to Court Over Carton of Milk

Photograph by NBC

A Maryland teen went to court last week to face charges that he stole a 65-cent carton of milk last year. His family and lawyer claim that the African-American teen was racially targeted and are fighting the charges.

Ryan Turk, a high school freshman, admits that he took the milk last May, saying that, as a recipient of free lunches, he didn't see a problem with it. He had gone through the line to pick up his food, but forgot to take a milk. The school's resource officer (a police officer assigned to a school) saw Turk cutting in the milk line and thought Turk had taken the drink without paying. He claims that after confronting Turk, the Graham Park Middle School student hid the milk, then threw it back and became disorderly when told to go to see the principal over the matter, the Washington Post reported.

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Turk was eventually handcuffed and arrested, then charged with disorderly conduct and petty larceny. In court last week, Turk turned down an offer of nonjudicial punishment, and a Prince William County judge set a November trial date. His mother, Shamise Turk, told reporters her son was entitled to the milk and that he broke no laws.

The Turks and their lawyer allege that the teen was discriminated against because of his race and because he "did not want to go along with a police officer who they say was being unfair." The attorney said the officer's and administration's actions are part of the institutionalized racism in America's public schools, where black and brown boys go from school to prison at a much higher rate than their white peers.

The officer and the school administration say discrimination is not part of this case, as the resource officer, the principal and teachers are African-American, too. But just last week, a study from Yale University found that, at least in preschool, both black and white teachers expect black boys in their classes to misbehave more than the white children in their classes.

“No one needs to be punished for stealing a 65-cent carton of milk,” Emmett Robinson, a lawyer representing the family, said. “This officer treats kids like they’re criminals, and guess what happens — they’re going to become criminals.”

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Robinson also noted to reporters that the resource officer who arrested Turk had several other juvenile hearings scheduled the same day as Ryan Turk's hearing about the milk.

The school's spokesman defended the officer, saying he is part of the school community and that his work ensures the safety of students and staff. “He is well known to students,” Phil Kavits, a spokesperson for the Prince William County schools, said.

Turk's mom told reporters she had reviewed the surveillance video, which she says shows the officer grabbing Turk by the neck as he goes to put back the milk.

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