ACLU Settles Suit Over Unlawful Assault And Arrest Of Narragansett Special Education Student

The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of a federal lawsuit filed three years ago on behalf of a former Narragansett High School student with special education needs who was thrown to the ground, choked, and arrested by a school resource officer (SRO) over a rude hand gesture the student gave the SRO. A videotaped record of the incident shows SRO Kyle Rooney forcefully slamming to the floor and restraining 11th-grader Michael Blanchette for a few minutes before removing him from the school in handcuffs.  

In settling the case, which avoids the necessity of a planned trial, the school district, without admitting liability, has agreed to pay Blanchette $75,000 in monetary damages. The suit was handled by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Amato DeLuca.

The incident arose when Rooney confronted Michael about whether he was allowed to be walking in the school hallway at the time, to which Michael said he had permission. After a brief argument about it, Michael gave Rooney the finger and began to walk away, but the officer immediately grabbed Michael and violently threw him on the floor. Rooney’s arrest report falsely claimed that he took this action because “Michael aggressively took a step towards me,” an allegation belied by the video, which shows Michael starting to turn away from the SRO before being slammed to the ground. Rooney charged Michael with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but both charges were later dismissed.

Among other claims, the suit argued that Rooney violated Michael’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; retaliated against Michael in violation of the First Amendment; unlawfully assaulted him; and filed unfounded criminal charges against him.

For years, the ACLU of Rhode Island has raised concerns about how SROs often escalate minor disciplinary incidents into major ones, and turn routine school infractions into criminal matters, unnecessarily introducing teenagers to the criminal justice system and scarring them in the process. The ACLU has also issued a series of reports, most recently this past month, documenting that students with disabilities, along with students of color, are disproportionately disciplined in virtually every Rhode Island school district, including Narragansett.  Statistics from the R.I. Department of Education show that two-thirds of all out-of-school suspensions issued by Narragansett High School the year of this incident were of students with disabilities.

Still pending is another SRO lawsuit brought by ACLU cooperating attorneys against the Pawtucket school district. That case involves a 13-year-old African-American middle school honors student who was handcuffed, taken to the police station, and kept in a cell for close to an hour before being released to her mother. The SRO arrested the child after watching a video of a schoolyard scuffle that had taken place that morning.

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said today: “We are very pleased that Michael has received monetary payment for the disturbing action taken against him. But his case only highlights the serious issues with the presence of police officers in schools, who all too often can turn minor disciplinary matters into criminal ones.”

Additional information about the lawsuit can be found here.