FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
December 13, 2012
Police Detained and Interrogated Students Based on Their Race And Ethnicity
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against school and police officials over a “gang sweep” in which students of color were detained, interrogated and falsely accused of participating in gang activity.
The complaint stems from a December 2010 incident during which between 14 and 40 West High School students of color were detained, interrogated, searched and forced to be photographed holding signs identifying them as gang members. Their personal information was entered into a “gang database,” making them subject to additional police scrutiny even though they did not commit a crime. All of the detained students were of Latino, African-American or Pacific Island descent, even though they make up only half of the student body.
“Schools should be a place where everyone can learn and grow, not a location where students of color are targeted and harassed,” said Courtney Bowie, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, which filed the complaint along with the ACLU of Utah. “Instead of policing our classrooms and criminalizing students of color, school and government officials must focus on educating our youth, and do that in an environment where everyone’s rights are respected.”
The case is part of a national pattern of criminalizing students of color, which often feeds into what has been called the school-to-prison-pipeline by experts and activists in the field of education. Just yesterday, the ACLU submitted a statementat a landmark hearing on the issue by a Senate committee, which pointed out that more than 70 percent of students referred to law enforcement from schools are African-American or Latino.
“At a time when Utah is working towards improving graduation rates for high school students, especially students of color, this type of police action sends a harmful message,” said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah.
The complaint was filed by Kevin Winston on behalf of his son, Kaleb, who was a 14-year-old freshman when he was detained and searched without permission and not allowed to call his parents or leave the room. Kaleb’s information was recorded, and he was photographed holding a sign with the phrase “gang tagger” despite the fact that he has had no gang involvement. He suffered stress and humiliation as a result of the incident and temporarily left the school in order to avoid further harassment.
“I am bringing this case because I want to help make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to any other student,” said Kaleb, who is African-American and is now a 16-year-old junior at the high school.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Utah against the Salt Lake City Police Department, Salt Lake County, the Metro Gang Unit of the Unified Police Department, the West Valley and West Jordan police departments, and Salt Lake City School District officials.
The complaint states that their actions violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure; the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, which prohibits discrimination, as well as the Utah Constitution and various state laws. The lawsuit also points out that the school had no legal justification to call the police unit to conduct the sweep.