A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit on behalf of a 13-year-old Black honors student who was handcuffed and arrested by a Pawtucket school resource officer who wanted to "make an example" of her.

A federal judge today refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a then-13-year-old Black honors student at Goff Middle School was gratuitously and unlawfully handcuffed and arrested in 2019 by a school resource officer who wanted to “make an example” of her. The suit was filed two years ago by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Shannah Kurland and Lynette Labinger, alleging that the student’s arrest was constitutionally unreasonable and racially motivated.

This case arose from an incident when the student [cited in the court case as “T.J.”] and another student got into a scuffle in the schoolyard before the school day started. It was quickly broken up by other students, and neither student was hurt. However, an hour later, SRO Darren Rose, relying solely on watching a video of the scuffle, decided to take T.J. in handcuffs to the police station over the objections of her mother who had come to the school immediately after receiving a call about the incident. According to T.J., Rose had earlier in the year told students at the school that he was “itching” to arrest someone.

T.J., who was an honor roll student and had no prior disciplinary infractions, was handcuffed, taken to the police station, and kept in a cell regularly used for adults for close to an hour before being released to her mother. The charge was disposed of when T.J. appeared before the City’s juvenile hearing board. The fracas leading to T.J.’s arrest prompted only a two-day school suspension for both girls. Because of the anxiety and fear generated by her arrest, T.J. did not return to Goff or any other Pawtucket public school, but instead enrolled elsewhere.

In his ruling today on the defendants’ motion, U.S. District Judge William Smith dismissed some of the claims raised in the lawsuit, but refused to dismiss two key issues, entitling T.J. to move forward on her claims that arresting her rather than issuing her a summons was constitutionally unreasonable, and that the decision to arrest her was racially motivated. In refusing to dismiss the latter claim and allowing the attorneys to engage in discovery on the issue, the judge cited “disturbing” numbers showing “stark racial disparities” in arrests at Goff school, citing as one example that in “the 2017-18 school year, 57 percent of students arrested at T.J.’s school were black girls, while all black students made up just 15 percent of the student population.”

Judge Smith’s decision quoted with approval the finding of another federal court which noted that:

“Racially selective action by law enforcement inflicts harm whether it is perpetrated by law enforcement in the streets or by a prosecutor in an office—both inflict substantial injury on the victim and society: in addition to violating the victim's rights to equality and liberty, such discriminatory conduct impugns the integrity of the criminal justice system and compromises
public confidence therein.”

R.I. Department of Education data also show significant racial disparities in the issuance of suspensions to students in Pawtucket’s schools.

In 2016, a video showing a Pawtucket school resource officer’s body-slam of a Tolman High School student prompted ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown to write a letter to Pawtucket school officials, raising concerns about how SROs often escalate minor disciplinary incidents into major ones and turn routine school infractions into criminal matters, unnecessarily introducing children to the criminal justice system at an early age and scarring them in the process. The letter urged the school district to rein in the powers of SROs in order to avoid incidents like this from happening.

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Kurland said today: “T.J. is brave beyond belief to have stood up for her constitutional rights at the age of 13.  Because of her, we can say to other school districts – if you come for our children, there will be consequences.” 

A week before filing this case in 2020, ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys filed another federal lawsuit, charging a Narragansett High School SRO with unlawfully assaulting and arresting a student with disabilities. That case is also pending.

Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) contributed attorney Kurland’s time to the effort as part of their work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

A copy of the court’s decision, with background information on the case, can be found here.