The fatal shooting of a Georgia Tech student on campus late Saturday night has a prompted a state investigation and spurred a national conversation surrounding issues including use of force, mental health and gender identity.
Scout Schultz, from Lilburn, was shot once in the heart after a confrontation with four Georgia Tech police officers. The 21-year-old engineering student was brandishing a pocket knife that police said Schultz refused to drop. It was the first officer-involved shooting on Tech’s campus in at least 20 years, if ever, a spokesman for the university said.
Questions about what led to the incident and how it was handled outnumber answers at this point.
According to the GBI, officers “provided multiple verbal commands and attempted to speak with Schultz who was not cooperative and would not comply with the officers’ commands,” said agency spokeswoman Nelly Miles. “Schultz continued to advance on the officers with the knife” and was shot. Schultz was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Grady Memorial Hospital.
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Attorney Chris Stewart, retained by Schultz’s parents, said that while Scout may not have obeyed commands, the student never rushed the officers. And he noted the blade on the knife was not extended.
“The area was secured. There was no one around at risk,” said
But Lance LoRusso, a Marietta attorney and former officer, warned against drawing conclusions from two videos of the shooting filmed by witnesses.
“People don’t stop in their tracks when they’re shot. Even at 15 to 20 feet the suspect is very likely to stab him” if the suspect wants to, said LoRusso, who represents many officers in use-of-force cases. “They’ll close that gap before the officer can get maybe more than one or two shots off.”
But family and friends have asked: Was lethal force necessary?
“Why didn’t they use some nonlethal force, like pepper spray or Tasers?” Scout’s mother, Lynne Schultz, said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A Tech spokesman said campus police do not carry Tasers, or stun guns, but are equipped with pepper spray.
“I just don’t understand how they couldn’t have Tasers,” Stewart said.
What led to the confrontation is a question that may never be answered conclusively.
Scout’s mother said the computer engineering student had attempted suicide two years ago using a belt as a noose. Diagnosed with depression at a young age, Scout’s mental health often wavered.
“It was intermittent,” Lynne Schultz said. “There was trouble in middle school, and then there was improvement.”
Overall, “Scout spent more time being fine than not fine,” she said.
Scout Schultz, according to the mother, chose to identify as nonbinary, neither male nor female, and was classified as intersex, meaning a person has biological or physiological characteristics that aren’t necessarily fully male or female. That’s different from “transgender,” where people feel they know what their gender is and that it’s not the gender they were assigned.
The AJC is following Associated Press guidelines for media coverage in using the pronoun “they” for Scout. Scout’s family and friends did, as well.
A recent national study found that 40 percent of transgender and non-gender-conforming people attempt suicide. But Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
An intersex person might or might not have greater mental health issues, because growing up intersex or transgender can carry a stigma and be highly stressful, he said. However, Graham stressed, “What‘s important for folks to recognize is there may have been some health issues involved, but mental health issues are not necessarily related to our gender identity.”
Scout’s mother said she doesn’t believe gender issues prompted Saturday’s deadly incident. She said her child had found ample support and encouragement two years after coming out as intersex, and Scout was president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance. She believes stress over school might have prompted the encounter with police. Scout was majoring in computer engineering and was already taking post-graduate courses, with plans to design biomedical devices for a living.
“Scout was always a perfectionist,” Lynne Schutlz said. “(Scout) always worried (they) was going to fail a test but got all A’s and only two B’s at Tech.”
Aby Parsons, executive director of Tech’s LGBTQIA Resource Center, worked closely with Schultz for two years. She described Schultz as a creative, courageous leader with a gift for organization. If she sent an email asking where things stood on something, Schultz would “reply instantly,” she said.
Parsons said she was camping in the woods and didn’t even think she had a cell signal when she got a message about the shooting in the middle of the night.
“Total shock and disbelief,” she said. “I just saw Scout on Thursday, we were planning a board game night. They (Scout) were saying, ‘Wow these are really good board games.’ That was Thursday night. I had not seen anything to lead me to think this could happen.”
Video of the incident showed Scout, 21, shouting “Shoot me!” to the officers, leading some to wonder if this was a “suicide by cop.”
Miles, with the GBI, said Sunday she did not know whether the officer who fired at Schultz was trained in dealing with mentally ill suspects.
The GBI, through its Crisis Intervention Team, has trained roughly 10,000 local, state and federal law enforcement officers since it began in 2004. Atlanta, Roswell, Henry County and now DeKalb are among the local agencies that require all of its officers to take the class. Some agencies do not require it.
LoRusso said it appears the officer followed the proper protocol.
“It looks like from what I can see that the officer did everything right,” telling Schultz to drop the knife, and LoRusso added, moving backward to try to put an obstacle in between them to increase the reaction time the officer would have if the student charged.
The fact the student refused to drop the knife was a dangerous move, and created “reasonable belief” for the officer that his life was in danger from a suspect with a deadly weapon, LoRusso said.
“Under the law,” he said, “that’s what matters.”
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard will decide, based on the GBI’s investigation, whether charges against the officer are warranted. Prosecutions against officers are rare. A 2015 investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News showed that in more than 180 fatal shootings over five years by police officers in the state, none had resulted in criminal charges against the officer.
Federal oversight in Schultz’s case is unlikely, as the Justice Department announced Friday it was revamping a program meant to address concerns — raised by local police departments — about officer use of force. Instead, the initiative begun under the Obama administration will focus on efforts to reduce violent crime.
-- Staff writer Stephanie Lamm contributed to this article.