Woman arrested at Gwinnett school board meeting denies allegations

The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, Georgia, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

A woman arrested at last month’s meeting of the Gwinnett County Board of Education after an altercation with a police officer over safety scissors is disputing the county’s account of the incident.

As an officer was confiscating Brenda Stewart’s scissors, Stewart said she reached toward them to show that they were child safe and don’t pierce skin. The school district said the officer had her fingers in the scissor loops and Stewart tried to twist and pull them away, but Stewart denies that.

Stewart said the officer recoiled and so did she, but the next thing she knew, she was being arrested.

“It’s all such a blur,” said Stewart, 50. “I had nothing to gain by fighting over a pair of scissors.”

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Stewart was charged with willful obstruction of a law enforcement officer, a misdemeanor. She was one of two women arrested as they were entering the Nov. 18 school board meeting. The other woman, Karen Pirkle, was charged with violating a criminal trespass warning because she was not allowed in school district headquarters after refusing to wear a mask as required in October.

Gwinnett school board meetings have steadily grown more heated in the past year. Anti-mask protestors have brought two meetings to a halt. The school district has increased its police presence and last month installed metal detectors in the meeting room lobby.

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Stewart said she went to the meeting, which was close by her home near Suwanee, to pick up a T-shirt from a couple that screen prints them. She was planning to watch the meeting for about an hour before running another errand and heading home. She brought the scissors, yarn and a hook to crochet because she expected to be bored.

She was wearing her mask and said she was not there to protest masks or vaccines.

Stewart said she did not know Pirkle, but walked into the meeting lobby while the other woman was being arrested. Pirkle yelled for someone to get her phone and take it to her husband, said Stewart, who was on the other side of the metal detector. Stewart said she put her purse on the security table, looked at the police officer, pointed to Pirkle and walked through the metal detector, which did not go off. Stewart denied that she “rushed” through the metal detector, as the school district said.

Pirkle gave Stewart her phone and Stewart walked back to the metal detector, where the school police officer was searching her bag. The officer told Stewart she couldn’t take the scissors in.

After the confrontation, Stewart said she was “slammed” against the wall, an allegation that Sloan Roach, school district spokeswoman, denied.

“She was placed against the wall to be handcuffed as she was not cooperating with verbal commands,” Roach said in an email.

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Roach confirmed the scissors were safety scissors but said Stewart did not try to talk to the officer before grabbing for them. Stewart does not face any weapons charges.

“Her actions escalated the situation,” Roach said. “She was charged with obstruction for her actions.”

Stewart said she and Pirkle sat in a conference room, handcuffed behind their backs, for about an hour while police completed paperwork. Stewart said no one told her what she was being charged with until they were en route to the Gwinnett County Jail.

Roach said officers informed her of the charge soon after the initial confrontation and several other times while they interacted with her.

Roach said the officer Stewart struggled with was scratched. Stewart said she had multiple bruises on her wrist and arm and her thumb is still numb from the incident. She said she and her family continue to face backlash based on the school district’s account of her behavior.

“The mental and emotional impact far outweighs any physical injuries,” she said. “This is truly one of the most traumatic things I have ever been through.”