ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Expulsion Of Middle School Student After Illegal Cell Phone Search

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Kristy Bennett, ACLU of Mississippi, (601) 540-6642; kbennett@aclu-ms.org

ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Expulsion Of Middle School Student After Illegal Cell Phone Search

SOUTHAVEN, MS - The
American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi today filed
a federal civil rights lawsuit 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" – when in reality the photos mainly depicted
the student dancing in the bathroom of his own home.

Richard Wade was a 12-year-old honor
student at Southaven Middle School when he had his phone confiscated
and searched last fall by several of his football coaches, his class
principal and a Southaven Police Department sergeant after he read a
text message during football class in violation of school rules.

"The rights of students to be free
from unreasonable search and seizure and to due process are not
suspended when they walk through the schoolhouse door," said Kristy
Bennett, staff attorney with the ACLU of Mississippi. "There was
absolutely no basis for school and police officials to search through
Richard's phone after it was confiscated, and there was absolutely
nothing to substantiate the baseless accusations that pictures on the
phone showed that Richard was involved in gang-related activity. The
entire incident was a gross violation of Richard's constitutional
rights, including his right to freedom of speech. Like most of us,
Richard carries personal and private data on his cell phone, including
photos that are for his own viewing."

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S.
District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi and which names
as defendants the DeSoto County School District, coach John Stevenson,
principal Kenneth Walker, the city of Southaven and Southaven Police
Sergeant Nicholas Kennedy, charges that the searches and expulsion
violated Richard's rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth
Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as his rights under the
Mississippi Constitution.

After receiving a text message in
August 2008 from his father in South Carolina which he thought might
indicate an emergency, Richard flipped open his phone to read the
message. But rather than simply confiscating the phone and turning it
in to the school office as required by Southaven Middle School policy,
several school officials, including Stevenson and Walker, searched
through the private and personal pictures Richard had stored on the
phone, despite not having any reason to believe that Richard had done
anything wrong other than possessing the cell phone. The phone was
subsequently turned over to Sergeant Kennedy, who claimed that the
pictures constituted "gang-related activity" and "indecent pictures."
Richard was suspended for three days and ordered to attend a
disciplinary hearing the next week.

During the disciplinary hearing,
which Richard attended with his mother Jennifer and a family friend,
Walker argued without substantiation that Richard posed a threat to
school safety and Kennedy asserted, also without providing any factual
basis supporting his claim, that he recognized gang signs in the photos
Richard had stored in his phone. As a result, Richard was expelled from
school by the county school board.

"This is a case where an honor
student was expelled from school because a police officer and school
officials decided without any basis that innocent pictures of a kid
dancing conveyed 'gang-related' messages," said Reginald T. Shuford,
senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. "School
officials and the police officer involved never pointed to anything
that would suggest that pictures of Richard dancing were linked to a
gang in any way. From the day he had his phone confiscated until the
day the county school board expelled him, school and police officials
showed a callous disregard for Richard's rights."

As a result of his expulsion,
Richard was forced to enroll at Oakhaven Middle School in Memphis,
Tennessee, a school plagued by serious gang problems and which posed a
constant threat of harm to Richard. At the end of last school year, in
an effort to escape that harm, Richard and his mother moved to
Savannah, Georgia, where he has enrolled for the 2009-2010 school year.

Among other things, the lawsuit
seeks to have the charges related to this incident expunged from
Richard's law enforcement, academic and disciplinary records.

A copy of today's lawsuit is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/edu/40884lgl20090901.html

Additional information about the ACLU of Mississippi is available online at: www.aclu-ms.org

Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice

Additional information about the school-to-prison-pipeline is available online at: www.aclu.org/stpp

 

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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