ACLU sues Mississippi police and school officials for excessive force
WASHINGTON – Call it a replay of the Jena Six case. The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi calls it, “an egregious example of excessive and unwarranted use of force by police against students in a school setting.”
The incident–captured on a surveillance videotape–occurred when two Southaven, Mississippi, police officers responded to an argument between three students on a bus by arresting a half-dozen Black students, choking and tackling a Black female student and threatening to shoot the 30 students on the bus between their eyes.
The National ACLU and the ACLU of Mississippi filed a federal civil rights lawsuit April 9, charging Southaven police and DeSoto County school officials with assaulting and racially discriminating against the Black students.
“A group of young children were traveling home from school, the day of this incident. A couple of girls were getting loud. The school bus driver decided to pull the bus over and call the police,” Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi told The Final Call. A police officer went onto the school bus and “began to threaten and yell at the students. Some of the students started laughing at him. This upset him, and he then, one by one proceeded to arrest six students in total,” she continued.
The incident occurred on August 12, 2008, when an argument broke out between three students on a school bus taking DeSoto County Alternative Center students home after school. Rather than attempting to defuse the situation by separating the students, the school bus monitor called the police and ordered the driver to pull the bus over to the side of the road, the ACLU reported.
“This case is a vivid and disturbing illustration of the dangers of relying on police officers to maintain order in public schools,” Jamie Dycus, an attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in a statement. “No sensible person handles an argument on a school bus by having armed police officers threaten, arrest and assault schoolchildren. What happened here was not only unlawful, but unconscionable, and those responsible must be held to account.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi on behalf of the six students who were arrested and their parents, names as defendants Police Sergeant Tomas Aguilar and Officer Lee Holiday, the city of Southaven, Mississippi, the DeSoto County School District and school bus drivers Mary Robbins and Belinda Heyman, the ACLU said. The suit does not ask for monetary damages, but for the police officers to be removed, and for the school district to be restrained from calling police for school discipline incidents.
“When the Jena (Six) incident happened, it wasn’t surprising to us in Mississippi,” Ms. Lambright said. “We get these stories all the time. We’re not fortunate in most cases to get a videotape, as we were in this case, but it happens all the time.
White officials throughout the Mississippi Delta region flaunt their authority, according to Ms. Lambright. “They know about (the Jena Six case), and they don’t care. They think they can treat these students any kind of way. They treat these students like animals. I think most of them believe they are animals. And they believe that they need to scare them in order to curb disciplinary issues.
“But we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. We’ve been trying to get police out of the schools period. Because over and over again, we see where police are called in for regular disciplinary incidents like fights or insubordination, and they end up turning them into criminal charges, where at the most they should get a 10-day suspension.”
When the police officers arrived on the scene in Southaven that day, one of them boarded the bus and verbally accosted the children, threatening to “run all your little as–s in,” according to the ACLU complaint. One of the officers arrested the two Black students involved in the argument, telling one girl as he handcuffed her that he was going to take her “little a– down to juvenile hall.”
Several minutes later, after the officer pulled the two students off the bus and placed them in the back of his patrol car, the police sergeant boarded the bus and immediately began taunting the students by screaming, “You think this is funny?” and “Who wants to try me?” Sgt. Aguilar then arrested three Black students who had done nothing more than smile or laugh.
Sgt. Aguilar then identified a sixth and final Black student for arrest, despite the fact she had done nothing against the law, according to the ACLU. As she walked off the bus in accordance with the officer’s orders, she said she was going to call her mother. The sergeant responded by grabbing her by the neck, flinging her down into an empty bus seat and using the weight of his body to subdue her. He then screamed into her face, “You don’t talk to me like that! You don’t talk to me like that! Do you understand?”
The incident didn’t end there, according to the ACLU. Sgt. Aguilar re-boarded the bus several minutes later and continued yelling at the children remaining on the bus, at one point screaming with his hand resting on his service revolved, “Y’all think this is funny? Y’all think this is funny? Wait until you get a bullet between the eyes,” according to the video obtained by the ACLU.
In all, six Black students were arrested and ultimately charged with minor offenses like disturbing the peace. Sgt. Aguilar is employed as a school resource officer.
“The decision by the two school district officials to involve the police in an incident that involved nothing more serious than verbal arguing was irresponsible, and the behavior of the police officers was reprehensible,” said Kristy Bennett, staff attorney with the ACLU of Mississippi.
“There was absolutely no justification for even a single arrest, and there is no doubt that those who were arrested were singled out because of their race. The actions of the officers caught on video that day are just one more example of the problems our youth are dealing with in the school environment. The abuse of powers rampant in our schools these days is intolerable,” Ms. Bennett said.