The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has filed a federal lawsuit against Tiverton police and school officials over an incident in which an 8-year-old girl was removed from a school bus, had her belongings searched, was taken alone to the police station without her parents’ knowledge, and then held and questioned at the police station for several hours before being released. The seizure, detention and interrogation of the young child were based solely on unsubstantiated claims from another child that the girl was carrying “chemicals” in her backpack, and occurred even after the police found nothing in the backpack.
The lawsuit, filed in Rhode Island District Court by ACLU volunteer attorneys Amato DeLuca and Miriam Weizenbaum, argues that school and police officials unlawfully and unnecessarily searched and detained the child, violating her constitutional rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. The suit is on behalf of the child and her parents.
The suit stems from an incident on October 24, 2014, when a student falsely told a school bus attendant that the girl and another student had “chemicals” in their backpacks. The bus was stopped and Tiverton Police officers and school officials were called to the scene. The police officers removed the two 8-year-old girls from the school bus, and upon searching their bags, found no evidence of chemicals or anything else suspicious. The lawsuit alleges that despite having no probable cause to believe the two children had done anything wrong, the police still took the girls to the police station before contacting their parents and without any school officials present. Once the parents arrived, the girl was questioned and accused of not telling the truth before being released. That evening, the school robocalled all elementary school parents, wrongly informing them that two students had claimed to have chemicals and made threats to set a school bus on fire. No further action was taken against the accused students, while the girl who made the false accusations was disciplined.
The lawsuit makes numerous claims against the Town for providing “no training or grossly inadequate training to its police officers and school department employees regarding their duties, responsibilities and conduct toward minor school children and their parents; use of force; preventing abuse of authority, communicating with parents of students in their care, custody and control; apprehension of school children and their arrest or detention.” This failure to adequately train employees, the suit argues, caused the plaintiffs emotional distress and resulted in the denial of their constitutional rights.
ACLU attorney DeLuca said today: “It is unfortunate that we have been reduced to arresting without cause third grade children in the name of public safety. We must not forget that when officials fail to exercise common sense discretion, overreactions like this can significantly harm affected children.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “Whether it is a Texas high school student getting arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school or a Tiverton third-grader being arrested and interrogated by police on the basis of completely unsubstantiated accusations, the rush to violate students’ rights in the name of ‘safety’ has to stop. We recognize that school officials should be vigilant in protecting children. However, turning eight-year-olds into police suspects in the absence of any evidence whatsoever is traumatizing and undermines, rather than furthers, the educational mission of a school. We hope this lawsuit will make police and school officials think twice before terrorizing young children in this fashion.”
The suit seeks a court order finding that the actions and policies of town officials throughout the incident were illegal, as well as damages for mental anguish and emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.