For Immediate Release
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, Miss. - 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/
Information about the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU in April is available online at: www.aclu.org/crimjustice/juv/
Information about the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU last month is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/
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.