ACLU Settles Case on Behalf of Third Grader Searched and Arrested Without Cause

Posted: Jun, 20, 2017

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit against Tiverton police and school officials over a 2014 incident in which an 8-year-old girl was removed by police from a school bus, taken alone to the police station without her parents’ knowledge, and then held and questioned at the 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.

Under the settlement, the Town has agreed to pay $40,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees to the family, and also adopted a formal protocol to deal with any similar incidents in the future. Among other things, the protocol requires police to immediately inform and involve school officials when an officer wants to remove an elementary school student from a school bus. The policy also bars, absent a likelihood of imminent harm, any police or school official interrogation of the children until their parents are present.

The lawsuit, handled by ACLU volunteer attorneys Amato DeLuca and Miriam Weizenbaum, had argued that the Tiverton officials’ actions violated the child’s constitutional rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The suit stemmed from an incident in 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. Police removed the two 8-year-old girls from the bus, and upon searching their bags, found no evidence of chemicals or anything else suspicious. Despite having no grounds to believe the two children had done anything wrong, the police still took them to the police station before contacting their parents and accused them of not telling the truth. 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.

ACLU attorney DeLuca said today: “ I am very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with the Town. The enacted protocols will provide children and their families with necessary protections against unreasonable and unwarranted searches and seizures, while also ensuring that the police department will still be able to perform its duties to insure the safety of the town’s young residents.” ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “The ACLU is hopeful that this new protocol will prevent any other student from going through what this child endured. This case is a concrete reminder that over-policing of our schools and our students must stop.”

The parents, wishing to protect their child’s privacy, have expressed a desire not to be interviewed about the settlement.

A copy of the protocol can be found here.

Background information on the case can be found here.