As conflict over race-based discriminatory police practices permeates the country, ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Shannah Kurland and Lynette Labinger today filed suit in federal court over a Pawtucket School Resource Officer’s (SRO) gratuitous and unlawful handcuffing and arrest last year of Tre’sur Johnson, a 13-year-old African-American honors student at Goff Middle School. The suit alleges that the defendants’ treatment of her violated numerous constitutional and statutory rights, including her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

This is the second lawsuit in a week filed by the ACLU of RI over disturbing and questionable arrests made by SROs in Rhode Island schools. A lawsuit filed last Thursday charged a Narragansett High School SRO with unlawfully assaulting and arresting a student with disabilities.

This latest case dates back to last June, when Tre’sur 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 kerfuffle, decided to arrest Tre’sur for “disorderly conduct” over the objections of her mother who had come to the school immediately after receiving a call about the incident. According to Tre’sur, Rose had earlier in the year told students at the school that he was “itching” to arrest someone.

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

The lawsuit argues that the arrest was made in clear violation of state law, which generally bars arresting individuals for misdemeanors without a warrant. The suit further argues that Rose, with the knowledge and consent of the school principal Lisa Benedetti Ramzi, maliciously arrested Tre’sur “not for any reason having to do with safety but because he wanted ‘to make an example’ of this child by publicly displaying her being arrested.” Among other relief, the suit seeks punitive damages against Rose and Ramzi for exercising a “gross abuse” of their powers, and a court order formally confirming the unlawful nature of the City’s conduct, including violating the Fourth Amendment.

The suit points out that of seven students arrested at Goff the previous school year, four of them were Black, non-Hispanic children, even though the student body was only 14% Black, non-Hispanic. In addition, R.I. Department of Education data show significant racial disparities in the issuance of suspensions to students in Pawtucket’s schools. Although Black students comprise about 8.5% of the student population in Pawtucket, over 15% of all out-of-school suspensions in the City’s schools last year were of Black students.

Four years ago, 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 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.

Tiqua Johnson, Tre’sur’s mother, said today: “Children in America should not have to grow up with fear of the police. Why does my child’s punishment for a small offense have to be such a gigantic injustice?”

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Kurland added: “This pattern of criminalizing Black girls in our schools is not ok.  And it’s definitely not ‘reasonable,’ especially not when the police violate a state law in order to do it.” The ACLU’s Brown remarked: “The two lawsuits that the ACLU has had to file in the last week shine a spotlight on the failure of schools to rein in the powers of SROs or to hold them accountable. This is not how a school should be treating the children in its care.”

In January, in accordance with state law, Kurland formally notified the City of plans to file the lawsuit. ACLU attorney Kurland’s time handling the case is courtesy of the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), where she is Legal Director.

A copy of the lawsuit, with background information on the case, can be found here.

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