Failing to give up the pink cellphone stuck in her back pocket purportedly led Harrison Middle School eighth-grader B.M. into more hot water than she’d ever imagined – a perp walk through school and a trip to the Juvenile Detention Center in handcuffs, escorted by a school resource officer.
The charge? Interference with the educational process, a petty misdemeanor.
The girl cooled her heels at the D-home for the rest of the day and was suspended from school for the rest of the 2011 year. But her mother went to lawyers, who filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court earlier this month and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the school resource officer, who is a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy .
“It’s one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen of criminalizing minor misconduct,” said Shannon Kennedy, the girl’s attorney. “There’s no reason to handcuff a child” in those circumstances. “It’s not the place of law enforcement to punish children.”
APS policy on personal electronic devices says they are permissible but must be kept out of sight and silenced or powered off during classes. Devices that disrupt the instructional day may result in discipline or confiscation, according to the district website.
A Bernalillo County sheriff’s spokesman said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but in an answer filed with the court, the county denies any wrongdoing.
The pink phone lawsuit is cited in a class action lawsuit in state court filed by the Kennedy Law Firm in 2010 against the city of Albuquerque and Police Chief Ray Schultz.
The firm has filed pleadings to bring the county and Albuquerque Public Schools into that lawsuit, which seeks damages and an injunction requiring officials to comply with state law so middle-schoolers aren’t unlawfully or inappropriately arrested, and to make sure they aren’t subject to interrogation during a school detention.
Treating elementary and middle-school-aged kids like small criminals, the plaintiffs say, “creates adult criminals.” School officers shouldn’t put kids in cuffs if they are not a threat to themselves or others, they argue.
The city responds that plaintiffs are minimizing the conduct in question.
Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy says in a court document that what Kennedy characterizes as discipline for “the slightest act of defiance” is actually a response to “acts which have impacted the classroom process and sometimes amount to threats of physical violence.”
In the dozen or so police reports reflecting alleged civil rights violations, the city says, “attempts were made first by school personnel to de-escalate the situation and gain compliance before officers were called to assist. At some point, disruptive behavior which rises to the level of not allowing other students to learn or places teachers and students in danger must be stopped.”
The city document says children know how to behave in school and know there are varying degrees of discipline, including, at the far end, law enforcement involvement.
Kennedy cites a county study of Albuquerque Public Schools-related delinquency that shows only four cases of children being arrested on the “interfering” charge since the lawsuit was filed – something she believes shows positive change since officials were called on the issue.
The class action was filed on behalf of a then-13-year-old student at Van Buren Middle School who, according to the allegations, was talking to a friend in a seventh-grade math class when the teacher told her to move.
When the girl resisted, the teacher told her she would have to stay in for lunch. When the girl asked a second time to call her mother, the school resource officer was summoned. The girl allegedly was “forcibly handcuffed” and slammed against a school locker.
The class action cites incidents such as a seventh-grader who burped audibly, was chastised by the teacher for disrupting the class and ultimately was placed in handcuffs.
In the pink phone case, an incident report filed by the officer says a school counselor and administrator at Harrison Middle School called the girl in because she had become defiant in class after being called to task for not doing her class work. The administrator asked twice for the girl’s phone – she said it was a violation of school policy – and when the girl refused to give it up, she was handcuffed and transported “without further incident or injury.”
The case is pending before District Judge Alan Malott.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal