Videotape Puts Beating in Omaha in Spotlight

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The widespread distribution of a videotape showing one student beating another has taught community members and school officials in Omaha, Neb., a lesson that Los Angeles learned after the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

Moving pictures can be a powerful force.

The videotape of the May 10 incident at Omaha South High School, which might otherwise have drawn little attention, has appeared on television newscasts across the country. And an assistant principal spurred additional publicity when she appeared on a local radio talk show and criticized the handling of the incident.

Though similar to other high-profile cases in which videotapes played a key role, the Omaha incident includes an added twist: The 16-year-old assailant apparently wanted to be taped in the act of beating another student.

"To just randomly pick a hapless kid and pummel him just to make a video, that kind of violent act is just different," Omaha prosecutor Martin Conboy said in an interview. "I can't recall any case where somebody videotaped their own crime."

The attacker, Johnny Tkaczuk, 16, pleaded guilty to the beating, and a Douglas County judge late last month sentenced him to the maximum penalty for a third-degree assault: one year in jail. Mr. Tkaczuk was charged as an adult.

Viewers of the tape say Mr. Tkaczuk attacked 15-year-old Ryan Nokes from behind in a hallway outside the school cafeteria. The blows delivered in about 30 seconds left the younger student with broken bones in his face.

A 16-year-old student who held the camera and allegedly encouraged the fight has been charged with being an accessory to an assault. That case is pending. Mr. Conboy is seeking to prosecute the youth as an adult.

No Mere Scuffle

The tape might never have wound up in investigators' hands had Assistant Principal Kathryn Piller not quickly made a copy after she watched the tape.

Ms. Piller said she gave the camera and the original tape to another assistant principal, Charles Rush. She said she was shocked that he later returned both to the attacker. "I said to him three times that the assault was on there," Ms. Piller said in an interview.

Mr. Rush could not be reached for comment. District spokeswoman Winnie Callahan said "there were some differences in the accounts" between the two assistant principals.

Ms. Piller spoke about the administrative handling of the case on an Omaha radio talk show about a month after the assault.

Norbert J. Schuerman, the superintendent of the 44,000-student district, has said Ms. Piller's radio appearance was "regrettable" in light of the ongoing legal and school disciplinary cases.

Mr. Conboy, the prosecutor, praised Ms. Piller for her quick thinking in making a copy of the incriminating tape.

The tape showed that the incident more closely resembled a criminal assault than a schoolyard scuffle, he said. It shows Mr. Tkaczuk picking Mr. Nokes from a crowd and attacking without warning, the prosecutor added.

Mr. Schuerman said last week that it was "questionable" whether any school employees would be disciplined for their handling of the case.

"I was a bit surprised that it became such a national issue," he said in an interview.

School board member Kathleen McCallister criticized Mr. Schuerman for waiting more than a month before expressing his anger about the incident. "What's troubling to me is that the board had no knowledge of the incident until it broke on the news," she said.

Calling the assault a "wake-up call," Mr. Schuerman told the school board he would review policies on student safety.

"This is a shocking incident," he said. "Especially when it's played over and over and over again."

Vol. 15, Issue 40

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