Two young men had their paths cross during the last month of 2023.  One is 25 years old, married, an avid hunter, who had several life-changing events happen last year:  the birth of his firstborn, his graduation from WSCC's police academy, and his subsequent hiring by the Mason County Sheriff's Office as a road deputy and later an appointment as a school resource officer (SRO) at MCE Schools.

The other young man also had several life-changing events in 2023:  his 18th birthday making him a legal adult, followed by a felony conviction of home invasion (3rd degree), and ten days after that, receiving and being arraigned on a felony charge of resisting and opposing a police officer while going to school.  

Our readers may have guessed by now that Deputy Jacob Lesinski and MCE student Sebastian Cooper had their paths cross in an incident at the Custer public school, and our more-informed ones will guess that it was this December 15th incident, that our sister group the Ludington Pitchfork reported on as suspicious enough to warrant a FOIA request to find out what actually happened. 

The unnamed SRO and student now have names due to the response to the FOIA requests, but a lot more questions arise when one looks at what happened in this incident, what appears to be missing, and why I sincerely believe that the SRO and the school district erred in what they did that day-- and since-- by looking at the mistakes made in their actions taken against a student wearing a scarlet letter from past actions , yet minding his own business, in our story:

The Ludington Torch does not know either party in this case, not even MCE Counselor Shelly Rife who also plays a major role, nor have we even saw the TV show this article is named after "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper", so other than those prejudices ingrained beforehand, we have minimal bias in our quest for facts.

A Counselor's Story

MCE Superintendent Paul Shoup has been exemplary as a FOIA Coordinator in the few times I have sought information from the district, and he did not disappoint in my request for all public records the district had, he even forwarded the request to the sheriff's office because the district did not retain the SRO's report, investigation, or videos.  The main record the school had was their counselor's summary of what happened, reproduced here:

The first thing I noticed was disrespectful behavior, but I wasn't quite able to place who started it all.  The student, Sebastian Cooper, was fiddling with his cell phone between classes, according to the relevant part of the current MCE Student Handbook this is a privilege student's have and two things will cause a student to lose the privilege and have your phone taken for 24 hours:

Cooper did not have his phone out during instructional time and nothing is in the record about his gym teacher or anybody else for misbehavior that day.  Nor is there any indication from other records that should have been supplied if he had prior discipline for cell phone usage that stuck with him.  Counselor Shelly Rife had no reason to ask for his phone due to school policies, nor did she voice any reasonable suspicion at any time that the phone was stolen.  

She seems to have profiled Cooper as some sort of person that might steal a cell phone, even when there was no report of a stolen phone, and as we will see, this was not a stolen phone.  So perhaps because she had heard he had been convicted of a crime without allegation of violence or theft, she thought his behavior warranted a visit by the SRO to take his phone without any reason to.  She describes her mission:

"I am committed to helping all students be as successful as they can and want to be in all areas of their life. I love helping students discover and develop their strengths both academically and socially/emotionally. It is a pleasure to hear about their aspirations and I am always thankful when they allow me to help them achieve their goals. I am committed to helping all students find their career pathway whether it be college, apprenticeships, military, or world of work."

On December 15, 2023, by her own admissions she assisted Seb Cooper in finding his career pathway to jail on a poorly placed hunch.  She had no reason through school policy to take his phone, she had no reason to think it was stolen, as it would have been if he had given the phone to her as she escalated the situation in a way that most counselors would not recommend.  

But other than her part as witness to what unfolded, her part in this drama ended just after she texted the SRO and told him erroneously that Cooper was not allowed to have a cell phone in school and she thought it may be stolen, for whatever reason.

An SRO's Story

Enter Deputy Jacob Lesinski, SRO for MCE Schools, fresh from graduating from the local police academy in May.  

Lesinski would assume the duties as SRO after the sheriff would promote Deputy Adam Claveau (pictured left) to sergeant this fall.  Lesinski (pictured right) worked a couple of months as SRO and that would likely be the extent of his training for being one before this incident took place.  His incident report and course of action would show that he may not have followed the best path himself, but was misled by a school counselor looking to enforce a policy that wasn't warranted:  nothing was provided showing any past cell-phone disciplinary action on Cooper preventing him from having a cell phone between classes.

Had SRO Lesinski took some extra time to hear out the counselor, ask her the proper questions, and allow a minute or two for the hallway to clear out more, this may have had a very different ending.  But she had designs on Cooper's phone, and she would resort to nothing less than full scale escalation on someone she believed had stolen a phone and had 'unpredictable and assaultive behavior':

SRO Lesinski continued down a worse path.  Nothing in the MCE Student Handbook, the US Constitution, or Sebastian Cooper's probation conditions (shown below in relevant part) forces him to talk to a SRO/police officer:

Lesinski is not Cooper's field agent, so as a police officer he must respect Cooper's right to remain silent and be secure from an unreasonable search, absent a warrant.  School personnel have more latitude in searches as noted in the MCE handbook:

While the counselor saw the phone, she saw it during a time when students can have phones out and relies on some past disciplinary action which isn't part of the record to direct the SROs actions against a student she thinks may have a stolen phone, relying solely on her biases for that supposition.

When the action starts, both accounts of the SRO and counselor is consistent:  SRO Lesinski made the first contact.  It's portrayed as a defensive move in both, but the choosing of language is tempered, perhaps because there were plenty of witnesses and cameras around, they include:

Rife:  "lifted his other arm to swing at Jake.

Lesinski:  "walked towards me in an aggressive stance, with his fists clenched and attempted to push past me."

Rife:  "had one hand free and was trying to hit Jake."

Lesinski:  "[Cooper] began swinging his arms and deadweighted to the ground."

Rife:  "[Cooper] lifted his head and tried to head butt him."

Lesinski:  "repeatedly attempted to grab my utility belt, bite, and spit at me... he attempted to kick me repeatedly.

According to these two reports and their significant differences, Seb Cooper seems to have objected to this infringement of his rights in many ways that some would feel objectionable, but the reports both suggest that Cooper tried or attempted to do many things but failed doing anything physically aggressive even when carried onto the ground during the course of what a reasonable person might consider an unlawful detainment.

Looking at the OTIS records again, Cooper is listed as 5'7" and 135 pounds, not very imposing stats, so one wonders why the SRO seems to have initiated the use of force while acting upon his authority of a peace officer in a public school under questionable premises.  Two different reports from people who were not favorable towards Cooper appear to paint the young man's position in a better light than theirs'.  Cooper is incarcerated and unavailable for comment, so we don't know his account; fortunately, I requested the school videos and bodycam footage of the SRO.

Finally, the Camera's Story

Cameras make the best witnesses in cases like this and we would expect at least a couple of cameras to have recorded this encounter:  SRO Lesinski's body cam (complete with audio) and school security cameras out in the common hallways.  With either we could see who was the primary aggressor and whether all those claimed aggressive attempts made by the officials regarding Cooper's behavior was real or just a confused young man flailing about after being assaulted himself.

But Lesinski's report admits to a rookie mistake-- or maybe a planned maneuver to nullify his other mistakes caught on bodycam:

So, body cam footage was not available due to Lesinski's error in not having that attached when he was called expressly to enforce policy (right or wrong) on a student.  Deputy Postma compounded the issue, by not having a dash cam working on his way to the jail. 

At least, they had the school security videos, but they weren't given to me via the FOIA request.  Thus, I informally appealed the response from the sheriff's office and asked to be sent or at least to view the school video. 

When denied again on the grounds that it was an invasion of the student's personal privacy, I reminded the sheriff in a formal appeal that there is no expectation of privacy in a public school hallway, offering him the ability to edit out faces of those not involved with the incident in their response.  A denial was given, and Sheriff Cole suggested they did not have the school videos, even when it's clearly on the report that they were acquired and attached to the report, which was then passed on to the prosecutor.

Enter court records.  As Cooper had already been arraigned and had a schedule on the court docket, the Ludington Torch looked through these at the courthouse and found something interesting on the prosecutor's witness list:

The witness and exhibit list indicates that not only the officials involved will be used at trial, but also the body cam and in-car camera footage would be used.  According to the police report, these do not exist!  School camera footage exists, is supposedly attached to the report, but is not included in the state's witness/exhibit list!

Why would police and prosecutors claim they have non-existent footage, while covering up the only real footage of the incident (school security cameras) as an exhibit and through the FOIA process?  The answer seems to be clear: the footage from the school is exculpatory and clearly establishes that Cooper was innocent of what he is being accused of, a victim of an overbearing counselor whose prejudices against Cooper are made clear in her report and a rookie officer who failed to follow multiple policies as shown already in the record.

Sebastian Cooper should not be facing years in prison for his actions in this case, nor would he be likely facing any problem if School Counselor Shelly Rife had followed protocols she has likely used in the past before the school hired an SRO and offered her a way to accomplish her goals through the use of governmental force with life-altering consequences.  This is the School to Prison Pipeline in practice, prioritizing incarceration over education. 

Our society would rather be having our sons and daughters sitting in a jail cell for years than having them spend a Saturday in detention.  We condone the state ignoring their rights throughout and throwing away videos that go against their story.  We would rather be Hangin' Mr. Cooper rather than graduatin' him.  

Views: 711

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

First of all, these written reports  by the Councilor and Officer lack professionalism by constantly referring to those involved by their first names. Please school officials, learn how to act and be more professional.

From what I read in this article it appears that Ms Rife knows very little about how to handle situations at her school. She obviously has not been trained in conflict management. She turned a non existent situation into an expensive and profound legal battle for her student. She's the adult and should know how to manage situations like this. An 18 year old  is going to act like the teenager he is when falsely accused of a violation then manhandled by the police when not reacting the way he was ordered to. He should have gritted his teeth and cooperated with them,then, have his parents make a formal complaint and filed charges against the school. Now he's the one facing charges. Unnecessary ones at that.

Nobody in this situation acted like an adult. We can expect that from the student so what excuse can the Councilor and Officer use for their childish and irrational behavior. Not only did they act childish but instead of sitting down with the student and parents and ironing out this problem they are making this tiny mole hill into a volcano by involving the police and courts. How crazy can this school system be.

Thanks for the report X.


Thanks, Willy, and this episode just goes to show that when you get a new hammer, those screws that you had to use a lot of effort and get through a lot of twists to get into the wood start to look an awful lot like nails.  The best educators use screwdrivers and the best school counselors use Phillips screwdrivers to do the job right and allow the student (screw) to fit better into the world (wood).

The worst trend in public education is relying on poorly trained SROs to discipline students and take the place of counselors and administrators trained in student interventions.  

Ms. Rife stated in her report that Cooper was using his phone in "the gym lobby" during "the last few minutes of PE." So perhaps class had not been officially dismissed. XLFD: You wrote: "Cooper did not have his phone out during instructional time." What information do you have that proves Ms. Rife lied in her report? Had class been dismissed or not? 

Thanks for paying attention to detail.  I'm not sure of the counselor's definition of "gym lobby", but I went to MCC and subbed at MCE and MCC and can tell you that PE started out by students going to the locker room and getting dressed, then doing some activity until about 10 minutes to the end of class, when they went back, took a shower, got back in their regular clothes, then spent whatever time they had left near the gym doors or just outside to wait for the bell.  The handbook doesn't give a definition of "instructional time" but a good working definition is:  "Time scheduled for purposes of instruction, examinations/testing and other student activities where direct student–teacher interaction and supervision are maintained."

Waiting for the bell while the PE teacher is solely making sure that everyone is clearing out of the locker room is not what a reasonable person would call "instructional time", nor in Counselor Rife's intervention did she recognize an instructor even being present in the gym lobby, as they were probably back in the locker room or on the other side of the gym getting ready for the next class.


© 2024   Created by XLFD.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service