Sheriff’s deputies and police officers have long been a presence in schools, in case things get out of hand. Recently, school administrators and resource officers have taken things a bit further, conducting so-called “scared straight” programs under which misbehaving students are exposed to jails or prisons as an effort to convince them to change their ways.

Beyond being ineffective and often backfiring, such tactics can be illegal or unconstitutional. Such was the case when a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy arrested seven middle school girls for being uncooperative during a bullying investigation to “prove a point” and “make (them) mature a lot faster.”

Not “Playing Around”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has a succinct rundown of what happened at Etiwanda Intermediate School in Rancho Cucamonga, California:

On October 8, 2013, a group of seventh grade girls (twelve and thirteen year-olds) were handcuffed, arrested, and transported in police vehicles from their middle school campus to the police station. An assistant principal had asked a school resource officer, Sheriff’s Deputy Luis Ortiz, to counsel a group of girls who had been involved in ongoing incidents of bullying and fighting. School officials gathered the girls in a classroom to wait for Deputy Ortiz. The group included both aggressors and victims, and the school did not identify or separate them. When he arrived on campus, Deputy Ortiz initially intended to verify the information the school had given him and to mediate the conflict. Within minutes, however, Deputy Ortiz concluded that the girls were being unresponsive and disrespectful. He decided to arrest the girls because, as he explained to them, he was not “playing around” and taking them to jail was the easiest way to “prove a point” and “make [them] mature a lot faster.” Deputy Ortiz stated that he did not care “who [was] at fault, who did what” because “it [was] the same, same ticket, same pair of handcuffs.”

The only problem for Deputy Ortiz? The unlawful arrest violated state laws and the Fourth Amendment.

Cannot Be Justified

“The summary arrest, handcuffing, and police transport to the station of the middle school girls was a disproportionate response to the school’s need, which was dissipation of what the school officials characterized as an ‘ongoing feud’ and ‘continuous argument’ between the students,” Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen wrote. “No reasonable officer could have reasonably believed that the law authorizes the arrest of a group of middle schoolers in order to teach them a lesson or to prove a point.”

No criminal charges against the girls were filed, and they were not disciplined by the school. “The arrest of a middle schooler,” the Ninth Circuit decided, “cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect.” The opinion upholds a lower court ruling granting the parents of the arrested girls summary judgment in their lawsuit against Ortiz, the school district, and the county. The parents are asking for $10 million in damages.

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