CINCINNATI (CN) - A public school district interrogated four black students in a windowless room guarded by police officers about affiliations with a nonexistent "gang," and expelled them for posting "'street' signs" on social media, the four families claim in court.
Lead parent Constance Hilderbrand et al. sued the Northwest Local School District, its Board of Education, Superintendent Andrew Jackson, Colerain High School Principal Maureen Heintz, the Colerain Township Board of Trustees, the town police chief and a police officer, in Federal Court. The school is in Cincinnati.
The parents claim the unconstitutional discrimination and search and seizure was part of a larger effort by the school district to restore its reputation after several criminal events involving its students in the past year.
A black student was arrested this spring for bringing a handgun to Colerain High School, and in a separate incident, a black Colerain student allegedly shot a former white student.
"Shortly after the extensive media coverage of these crimes, Colerain High School administrators received 'several' complaints from students and parents about images and videos on social media depicting other African-American students who attended Colerain High School," the complaint states.
"The school administrators stated that these 'several' parents and students had complained that they had been made 'uncomfortable' by photographs of African-American students making hand gestures that were posted on social media sites. They were also 'uncomfortable' with online rap music videos performed by African-American students, particularly videos performed by a group whose name was the 'Money Gang.'"
The school and police investigated and "created a list of African-American students that they believed had been a part of the group 'Money Gang,' had associated with members of the 'Money Gang' or had displayed hand gestures in online social media postings," the lawsuit states.
On April 10, the parents say, "There were numerous police cruisers in the parking lot at Colerain High School and numerous armed police officers milling about the campus.
"Police officers along with school defendants began rounding up African-American students including plaintiffs between 7:20 a.m. and 7:50 a.m., frisking them, searching their book bags, confiscating their cell phones, and placing them in a windowless room guarded by armed police officers standing outside the room and school administrators inside the room."
Students brought to the room - including the plaintiffs - were not told why they had been taken out of class until they were interrogated, which in some cases, was more than five hours later.
During the interrogation, plaintiff E.H. says, he was asked "to pull down his pants and turn out the pockets of the shorts he was wearing underneath."
Police searched his locker and book bag and then accused him of being in a gang because of a single photograph taken after a basketball game the previous winter, E.H. says.
E.H.'s mother claims her son was "interrogated ... for approximately 45 minutes about whether he was in a gang, knew any gang members, or knew anything about the shooting that had occurred in Green Township on April 5. E.H. truthfully answered all of those questions in the negative."
Assistant principal Joe Bertram then "told E.H. that if he wrote what defendant Bertram told him to in a statement he could return to class. Under duress, E.H. wrote a statement saying what defendant Bertram told him to write," according to the complaint.
"After E.H. wrote the statement, defendant Bertram said that E.H. would not be allowed to return to class and that defendant Bertram would be calling E.H.'s mother to pick him up because he was being expelled from school."
Constance Hildebrand says she was called to the school to pick up her son and was told about his expulsion.
She says she contested the decision at a disciplinary hearing, during which "the only evidence offered by the district that E.H. had violated a Code of Conduct provision was a photograph of E.H. with three other African-American boys." She claims that "based solely on that photograph, defendant Bertram continued to assert in these disciplinary hearings that E.H. was in a gang."
E.H. was suspended for 10 days and expelled for an additional 10 days, during which his mother says she "visited the school on three separate occasions to collect school work ... but she was told each time that there was no work available."
The three other minor plaintiffs claim they were subjected to similar treatment.
"It is not a crime to be an African-American teenager," the families say. "Yet, on April 10, 2014, Colerain High School administrators in coordination with Colerain Township police officers acted as if it were when they rounded up African-American students, held them in a windowless room guarded by armed police officers for upwards of six hours, and interrogated them about their social media postings and affiliations with other African-American youth."
The Northwest Local School District said in a statement that the lawsuit contains "considerable inaccurate information; specifically as it implies that only African-American students were suspended and expelled, when in fact students of other races were suspended and expelled as well."
The statement continued: "The district recognizes that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the school door, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court and other case law. However, the district does recognize its right and duty to limit student speech when those actions interfere with the safety of students, or the ability of the administration to maintain a school environment that is conducive to learning."
The families seek compensatory and punitive damages for constitutional violations, and want the expulsions removed from their children's records.
They are represented by Robert Newman, with Newman Meeks in Cincinnati.