Civil Rights

ACLU takes legal action over unlawful arrest of 13-year-old honors student

“When I see officers now, I just try my best to avoid them cause I feel like, what if I do something wrong?” said Tre’sur Johnson, a 13-year old who was arrested after a minor altercation with another student in her school. “Schools should be helping kids, not handcuffing them.” A legal claim for damages has been sent today to

Published on January 20, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

“When I see officers now, I just try my best to avoid them cause I feel like, what if I do something wrong?” said Tre’sur Johnson, a 13-year old who was arrested after a minor altercation with another student in her school. “Schools should be helping kids, not handcuffing them.”

A legal claim for damages has been sent today to the City of Pawtucket over a School Resource Officer’s (SRO) “gratuitous and unlawful” handcuffing and arrest of a 13-year-old African-American middle school honors student. The damages claim was submitted by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Shannah Kurland as a required legal prerequisite to the filing of a lawsuit on behalf of the student, Tre’sur Johnson.

Last June, Tre’sur and another student got into a scuffle in the Goff Middle School schoolyard before the school day started. It was quickly broken up by other students, and neither student was hurt. However, the SRO, who was not present for the incident but watched a video of it, decided to arrest Tre’sur for “disorderly conduct” over the objections of her mother, Tiqua Johnson, who had come to the school immediately after receiving a call about the incident. According to Tre’sur, the SRO, Darren 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.

State law bars the arrest of individuals for misdemeanors without a warrant except under specific circumstances that were not present in this case.

Tiqua and Tre’sur Johnson wearing #NoHandcuffsonKids tee shirts

“As a parent, you don’t have any idea how hard this was, not only for my child but for me because this is much bigger than my daughter,” said Tre’sur’s mother, Tiqua Johnson. “This is happening to more kids than just my child. As parents we hope to protect our children, but you would never think that we’re supposed to be protecting them from the people that’s supposed to be protecting us. SROs are supposed to be put into the school for the support and protection of our children, not to intimidate or put fear in them… Our kids go to school to learn. You would never think that they’re getting treated like criminals…

“The school department thinks that by having SROs it’s going to have a positive effect. But really, it can have a negative effect,” continued Tiqua. “The situation that happened to my child could happen to someone else and it could have the opposite effect: make the student not like school anymore, make them think that their life is not worth anything, turn them into a criminal as opposed to turning them into a future police officer.

“My child went from outgoing to not wanting to go anywhere, to not wanting to talk to people. Every time she sees a police officer she thinks she’s going to be arrested and that’s not the case. She should see one and feel safe and not the opposite effect. This is difficult, but it’s bigger than just us.”

Four years ago, a video showing a Pawtucket school resource officer’s body-slam of a Tolman High School student led to that SRO’s removal from the school. It also prompted the ACLU of Rhode Island to write a letter to Pawtucket school officials, raising concerns about how SROs often 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 similar incidents, but ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today that Tre’sur’s arrest demonstrated that little has changed. SROs like Rose remain police officers who, though assigned to schools, are accountable to the police department, not school officials.

The legal claim on Tre’sur’s behalf was filed on Martin Luther King, Jr Day. As is true for most school districts in the state, Rhode Island 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 percent of the student population in Pawtucket, over 15 percent of all out-of-school suspensions in the City’s schools this past year were of African Americans.

Tiqua Johnson was asked if she thinks this would have happened to Tre’sur if her daughter wasn’t Black.

“Honestly, no,” responded Tiqua Johnson. “Because when your child goes to a school, you receive like emails of things happening around the school. And I’ve received emails from the school of things that were happening and there was a student who threatened to blow the school up or whatever the case may be. And in the email was that, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about. Pawtucket police checked everything and he doesn’t have any access to weapons.’ My kid gets arrested for getting into a little altercation but nothing happens to him because he was white.

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“So how should I feel about that? Of course, I don’t want my child attending the same school, even though it’s not the same principal it’s still the same SRO and he already has a nasty taste in his mouth. So what would you do?”

Steven Brown, Shannah Kurland, Tiqua Johnson and Tre’sur Johnson

“Schools dramatically weaken their credibility when they tell students to obey rules yet allow police to break the law with those same students,” said ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Shannah Kurland. “ What happened to Tre’sur reflects a national problem of criminalizing Black girls in our schools.”

“Police misconduct like this does nothing to make schools safer,” said ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown. “It only highlights how schools, by entering into open-ended police partnerships, are acquiescing in the role of harming students and promoting the school-to-prison pipeline.”

After 40 days have elapsed from the submission to the Pawtucket City Council of the claim for damages – a time period established by state law – the planned lawsuit on behalf of Tre’sur will be filed. In addition to requesting monetary damages, the lawsuit will seek to prevent similar future incidents like this from occurring by requesting a court order formally confirming the unlawful nature of the officer’s conduct. ACLU attorney Kurland’s time handling the case is courtesy of the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), where she is Legal Director.

More information about this case, Johnson v Pawtucket, including a copy of the claim notice, and the ACLU’s 2015 letter regarding the Pawtucket SRO incident, can be found here.

Here’s all the video from the press conference:

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