ACLU sues school district over student expulsion

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a DeSoto County student who was expelled after officials confiscated his cell phone and found what they described as ‘‘gang-related’’ images.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Greenville. The suit names the DeSoto County School District, an unnamed district employee, Southaven Middle School coaches John Stevenson and Kenneth Walker, police Sgt. Nicholas Kennedy and the city of Southaven.

The suit seeks unspecified damages and the destruction of all law enforcement, academic and disciplinary records related to the incident.

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District policy bans cell-phone use during school hours. The suit said it’s common practice for student cell phones to be seized and released to parents after a fee is paid.

Richard Wade was a seventh-grader at the middle school in August 2008 when he received a text message from his father, who lived in South Carolina, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, which presents only one side of the legal argument, said Wade looked at the message after he arrived at football practice. His football coach, who is the unnamed employee, took the cell phone. The lawsuit said the coaches and the police officer reviewed Wade’s personal photos stored on the phone.

Among the images were photographs of Wade dancing in his home bathroom and another of a second seventh-grader holding a BB gun across his chest. That photo also was taken at Wade’s home.

School officials questioned Wade about whether he was involved in a gang, which he denied, the lawsuit said.

Wade was suspended for three days and ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing the next week.

During the hearing, Walker argued that the student posed a threat to school safety and Kennedy claimed he recognized gang signs in the photos, the ACLU said in a news release.

Wade was expelled by the county school board.

‘‘This is a case where an honor student was expelled from school because a police officer and school officials decided without any basis that innocent pictures of a kid dancing conveyed ’gang-related’ messages,’’ Reginald T. Shuford, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in a statement.

Catherine Nelson, a spokeswoman for the school district, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The coaches at the Southaven Middle School didn’t immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.