They were 11 black and Hispanic high school students on a college trip to Howard University, and they could not have asked for more — cool 16-person minibus with DVD player, great campus visit, magical tour of Washington at night.
But as he stepped haltingly backward off the bus, hands clasped behind his head as police rifles bristled, Kyron de la Rosa, 16, kept thinking about very different possibilities. “I kept thinking, ‘I really hope I don’t trip and fall because that could be the end of my life,’ ” he said. “I watch all the police shows — ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ ‘Cops,’ ‘World’s Dumbest Criminals’ — so I’ve seen things just like this on television, and I’m thinking: ‘Wow. I thought those kind of things only happened to criminals. What’s going on here?’ ”
What was going on, it turned out, was the response by the New Jersey State Police to a 911 phone call claiming the presence of a weapon when the students stopped for lunch on their way home Nov. 21 at the rest stop near Exit 7A of the New Jersey Turnpike near Trenton.
Students and their three supervisors say troopers cited a report of a black male in a gray sweatshirt carrying a gun.
At first, five of the students said Tuesday in interviews at a Safe Space youth center, they assumed the police car trailing behind them must have been following something else. Then, alarmed, many thought they might be in trouble — for not wearing seat belts. And then, they watched in amazement as about 10 police cars drew up and officers deployed with rifles drawn as a helicopter buzzed overhead. One by one, they walked backward down the steps, were searched and handcuffed and were told to sit on a guardrail.
They felt humiliated as troopers seemed unconcerned when drivers got out of their cars to take pictures of them while they sat handcuffed. “I’m sure they thought what I probably would have thought — that we must have done something really bad to put ourselves that situation,” Justine Seales, 16, said.
Finally, no gun found, northbound traffic shut down for an hour, the youths were set free, with no apology or attempt to defuse the tension and hurt other than brusque explanations that the officers were just following protocol.