ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Retaliatory Expulsion Of Student Under Unconstitutional Disciplinary Policy
Expulsion Highlights Pattern Of Unlawful Conduct By Authorities In DeSoto County, Mississippi
OLIVE BRANCH, MS – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi today filed a lawsuit charging DeSoto County, Mississippi school and police officials with retaliation for expelling a ninth grade student who in April filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that county authorities assaulted and racially discriminated against a group of schoolchildren riding home on a school bus.
Just four days after that earlier case had been resolved, the child, who was a freshman at Olive Branch High School and is indentified in the lawsuit by his initials, A.S., was targeted for nothing more than quietly singing to himself while sitting in the bleachers during an assembly and bopping his head and bumping his fists to the beat. Officials claimed his behavior constituted gang activity in violation of the district's disciplinary policy.
"To expel a high school freshman from school simply because he was singing to himself during an assembly is patently absurd," said Kristy Bennett, Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi. "A.S. has never been involved in gang activity and school officials never claimed that he was associated in any gang, disrupting any other students or interfering with any school activities. Rather, it is clear that A.S.'s expulsion was motivated by his involvement in the previous lawsuit."
Today's lawsuit is the third federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU against school and police officials in DeSoto County since last April. Taken together, the lawsuits reveal a systemic pattern of arbitrary and unlawful conduct by school and police officials and highlight the disturbing national trend known as the school-to-prison-pipeline, wherein children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. All too often, as all three ACLU lawsuits show, children of color are disproportionately targeted by such policies.
Last month, the ACLU also sued on behalf of a middle school student wrongfully expelled from school after authorities illegally searched his cell phone and found what they claimed were photos depicting "gang-related activity." In fact, the photos mainly depicted the student dancing in the bathroom of his own home. In that case, as well as in today's case, school officials cited a district policy prohibiting the "wearing or displaying in any manner…messages associated with any gang or social club that is associated with criminal activity, as defined by law enforcement agencies." It provides no further guidance as to what kind of conduct is prohibited.
"The anti-gang policy here, which permits limitless and unfettered discretion to punish children for virtually any kind of conduct, constitutes a clear violation of students' rights. It encourages the arbitrary imposition of suspensions and expulsions on children, as was the case here," said Catherine Y. Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. "It provides no notice to students that they could be expelled for, for example, wearing a cross, carrying a rosary or simply raising their fist in the air."
Today's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi and which names as defendants the DeSoto County School District, the city of Olive Branch, Olive Branch High School Principal Kyle Brigance, Assistant Principal Todd Nichols, Olive Branch Police Sergeant Toni Lesure and Olive Branch police officer Doug Stanek, charges that A.S.'s expulsion violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as his rights under the Mississippi Constitution.
During a ninth grade assembly on Aug. 10 – the first day of the current school year – A.S. was sitting with his classmates in the bleachers of the Olive Branch High School gymnasium quietly singing to himself while bopping his head and bumping his fists to the beat. Stanek, a school resource officer assigned to the school, ordered A.S. to descend the bleachers and then escorted him into a hallway outside the gym where they were met by Brigance, Nichols and Lesure. After being taken to Nichols' office, Stanek accused A.S. of throwing "gang signs" without providing any substantiation for his claim.
A.S. was suspended from school for three days and then ultimately recommended for indefinite suspension and expulsion. Since August 10, A.S. has been excluded from his classes, as well as all other services and extracurricular activities offered at Olive Branch High School.
A copy of today's complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/edu/41297lgl20091019.html
Information about the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU in April is available online at: www.aclu.org/crimjustice/juv/39312prs20090409.html
Information about the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU last month is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/edu/40885prs20090901.html
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