No, officer, you can’t mass arrest kids to help them mature

If ever there was a slam-dunk case in which the Fourth Amendment was clearly violated, it was the mass arrest and handcuffing of a group of middle school girls in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2013.

For some reason the school board has continued to defend it and the sheriff’s deputy. On Monday, the  9th Circuit Court of Appeals smacked it down again, just as a lower court had.

It started when the middle school’s assistant school principal had asked the sheriff’s deputy, a school resource officer, to counsel a group of girls who had been involved in ongoing incidents of bullying and fighting. After concluding that the girls were unresponsive and disrespectful, the deputy arrested the girls “to prove a point” and “make [them] mature a lot faster,” according to Monday’s decision.

You don’t get to arrest people to prove a point or make them mature faster, a fact lost on deputy Luis Ortiz, the school board, and the county that employs the officer.

Not that it’s not an inviting prospect, especially considering that what started everything was a fight between students a few days earlier, according to the court.

L.V. told other students that she was going to assault S.S. On October 2, 2013, S.S. confronted L.V. and said “[i]f you’re going to beat me up, get it over with,” and “hit me, bitch.” L.V. made good on her threat by punching S.S., who did not hit L.V. back. S.S. later successfully asked the school to change her schedule to separate her from L.V.

Over the following weekend, L.V. and another student, A.J., attempted to assault L.R. and S.S. in a local park. The victims fled, seeking assistance at the home of a stranger, who allowed them to call their parents to pick them up.

The school, acting on a complaint by parents, brought all of the participants into a room to sort everything out.

Kendall addressed the students first, stating that “the threats, the fights after school, the threats [to] fight [at] school . . . this needs to end.” She told them “[s]o far as I know, all five . . . all seven of you are, have been part of this continuous argument, on campus and off campus. And that is why the officer, Officer Ortiz, is here today. We are going to put an end to this.”

Deputy Ortiz then spoke to the students, in an “attempt[] to mediate the problems between the two factions of students and verify[] the information provided” to him by Kendall. Deputy Ortiz quickly formed the view that the students were unresponsive to his efforts and were behaving disrespectfully, based on their “body language and continued whispering.”

An audio tape of the incident, however, reflects mostly silence in response to Deputy Ortiz’s questioning; no student is captured on the audio as speaking loudly or being verbally aggressive.

No criminal charges were filed. The school didn’t suspend anybody.

The parents of three of the girls sued. A district court refused to give the school board and deputy immunity and issued a summary judgment in favor of the girls.

“We do not diminish the seriousness of potential violence between students,” Judge Jacqueline Nguyen wrote on behalf of the court.

Deputy Ortiz faced a room of seven seated, mostly quiet middle school girls, and only generalized allegations of fighting and conflict amongst them. Even accounting for what Deputy Ortiz perceived to be nonresponsiveness to his questioning, the full-scale arrests of all seven students, without further inquiry, was both excessively intrusive in light of the girls’ young ages and not reasonably related to the school’s expressed need. Ironically, the primary instigator of the conflicts, L.V., was the only one released to a parent at the school campus.

Nguyen also struck down the school district and deputy sheriffs’ argument that California law allowed warrantless detention of any child who “persistently or habitually refuses to obey the reasonable and proper order or directions of his or her parents, guardian, or custodian, or
who is beyond control of that person.”

There was no evidence the girls weren’t obeying the orders of the school officials, she said.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)

  • X.A. Smith

    “You are being immature, so I’m going to violate your human rights.”

    That’s not a very mature way to react.

  • crystals

    Why on god’s green earth would they have a male sheriff’s deputy/school resource officer try to mediate a conflict between a group of middle school girls? There are so many other, and better, ways to handle this.

    • Mike Worcester

      Counselors for one?

    • Al

      Sounds like the school is failing the girls on many, many levels, and it didn’t start just in 2013.

  • The Resistance

    I strongly dislike the euphemism ‘school resource officer’. They are armed (usually), on-site police in academic institutions who often have no special training to work in such a setting. When they are trained there is often no quantifiable research showing that they improve safety or outcomes. Among the ‘resources’ they provide are often handcuffs, tasers, and guns.

    This story reminds me of the incident somewhere in California in which a
    local police unit distributed t-shirts saying “You raise ’em, we cage ’em”. Once you put armed police in the public school system, it is a slippery slope to converting academic institutions into extensions of the criminal justice system.

    As a society, we seem OK with this model. Personally, I find it repulsive.