ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Amato DeLuca filed suit in federal court seeking monetary damages on behalf of a former Narragansett High School student with special education needs who was thrown to the ground, choked and falsely arrested by a school resource officer (SRO) over a rude hand gesture the student gave the SRO. A videotaped record of the incident, which occurred two years ago, 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.

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.

The lawsuit describes the situation leading to the officer’s assault of Michael as follows:

Plaintiff Michael Blanchette, while standing still and not otherwise moving, made a rude hand gesture to defendant Rooney, designed to communicate his dislike and displeasure for defendant Rooney’s unlawful orders, and began to turn to leave. Defendant Rooney then reached out and grabbed Mr. Blanchette, violently slamming him to the ground. While defendant Rooney was unlawfully seizing the plaintiff, staff personnel from the Narragansett School System observed his actions and took no steps to intervene, passively observing defendant Rooney’s excessive force in continuing to hold, restrain, and choke the plaintiff.

Among other claims, the suit argues 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, and unlawfully assaulted and filed unfounded criminal charges against him. Also named in the suit are the town’s police chief, school superintendent and high school principal, all of whom, the suit claims, supported or share some responsibility for the officer’s actions. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages in an unspecified amount.

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 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.

Michael Blanchette said: “When he had me pinned on the ground, the entire time I was asking him if he was arresting me and he wouldn’t respond to my questions. While he was on top of me, he would explain all these different wrestling moves and army moves that he was doing to me. I was crushed by him for what felt like a very long time, and this all started because I was only doing what my teacher allowed me to do by taking a walking break in the hallway. It was very upsetting how he instantly targeted me.” 

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney DeLuca added: “Schools have a mission of great importance to our state and to our nation. They are responsible for keeping our children safe while educating them. Clearly, neither the Narragansett School Department nor Police Officer Rooney subscribes to these noble principles. Instead, as this incident with Michael graphically demonstrates, they have trampled on students’ rights and undermined their feelings of safety by allowing and engaging in the excessive use of force.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown remarked: “This extremely disturbing incident is yet the latest reminder of how the school-to-prison pipeline is enabled through the proliferation of a police presence in our schools. Again and again, SROs turn minor matters into crime scenes, and all too often school officials acquiesce in this misconduct against their students. This is not the sort of ‘resource’ that special education students – or any other students – deserve.”

A copy of the lawsuit and a link to the video can be found here.