Full-scale arrest blemishing response to bullying

Full-scale arrest blemishing response to bullying

(Calif.) Officials at a Southern California K-8 district continue to struggle with fallout from a September court ruling on school bullying as a countywide spate of student suicides also bewilders the community.

Etiwanda School District, which serves about 14,000 students in eastern San Bernardino County, was inadvertently drawn into a civil rights suit after a school resource officer, who was also a sheriff deputy, improperly arrested a group of seventh grade girls involved in both sides of bullying incidents.

The arrest, which took place in 2013, sparked a challenge by the parents of three of the girls against the County of San Bernardino, the sheriff deputy as well as the school district.

A three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of the parents, saying the officer’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Since then, the district and the sheriff’s office have sponsored an hour-long presentation for parents on cyber bulling and set up online access points for reporting abuse or bad conduct.

“The district follows its discipline policies and the California Education Code with respect to student discipline,” Etiwanda School District superintendent Shawn Judson said in a statement. “We partner with local law enforcement agencies to keep our schools safe. This approach has not changed significantly in the last five years; however, we continually review our policies and practices to ensure they effectively serve our students and school community.”

The ruling, which was issued in late September but didn’t become public for several weeks, followed national press coverage of a string of student suicides in the Rancho Cucamonga area in August. Three high school students and one elementary student took their lives during the first few weeks of the new session.

Although investigators found no link between the suicides or any motives, it did prompt district administrators throughout the county to reassess mental health services, including bullying prevention.

The suit at Etiwanda emanated from an expanding “feud” between a group of 12- and 13-year-old girls attending the same middle school. Although one student in particular was identified in court testimony as the primary aggressor, school personnel seemed to view all of the girls involved as sharing some responsibility.

As the attacks and threats escalated, an assistant principal at the school requested Deputy Luis Ortiz to intervene by talking to all of them at once.

In court testimony, Deputy Ortiz said that shortly after convening the meeting, he became convinced that the girls were unresponsive to his efforts and were behaving disrespectfully, based on their “body language and continued whispering.”

In an effort to “prove a point,” Ortiz called for backup and arrested each one, handcuffing them and putting them into a police vehicle for transport to the police station.

Writing for the majority, Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen said the officer lacked probable cause and that his actions were a “disproportionate response” to the situation.

“We do not diminish the seriousness of potential violence between students, or the need for conflict resolution in the educational setting,” the judge said. “But society expects that children will make mistakes in school—and yes, even occasionally fight. 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 non-responsiveness 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.”

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