Arresting Bickering Students to Prove a Point? Too Far, Says Ninth Circuit.

Arresting Bickering Students to Prove a Point? Too Far, Says Ninth Circuit.

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“Society expects that children will make mistakes in school—and yes, even occasionally fight.”1 A group of students in Etiwanda Intermediate Middle School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, took that aphorism to heart, feuding in the way only young girls can – pointlessly.

The main instigator, who we’ll call “Amy,”2 approaches a classmate, “Betty,” during a break between classes. Amy grabs Betty by the hair and punches her in the face. Another girl, “Charlotte” sees the fight and pulls Amy away. Betty never throws a punch, but she and Amy are both suspended.3 Betty’s mother asks a school resource officer, Sheriff Deputy Thomas, about filing a restraining order. He says it’s not practical and sends Betty’s mother on her way.

Fast forward a couple weeks. Amy tells her friends that she plans on beating up another student, “Deborah.” Before long, Deborah finds out and confronts Amy, telling her to “get it over with” if that is what she planned on doing. Amy accepts the invitation and punches Deborah, who doesn’t fight back. The next weekend, Amy enlists another student (“Emma”) to continue her bullying spree. The pair find Betty and Deborah in a park and attempt to start another fight, but Betty and Deborah flee.

In school the next week, Betty, Charlotte, and Deborah complain to school administration about Amy’s behavior. Later that day, all five girls, plus two additional students (“Fiona” and “Grace”) are summoned to a meeting with the principal, assistant principal, and Sheriff Deputy Ortiz, another school resource officer. Although the purpose of the meeting is supposedly to mediate the feud and stop the bullying, Deputy Ortiz quickly concludes that the girls’ “body language and continued whispering” are disrespectful.4 Within minutes, he threatens to take the whole group of them to jail to “prove a point”:

And for the one lady laughing that thinks it’s funny, I am not playing around. I am dead serious that we are taking you guys to jail. That might [be], it might be-is, the most easiest thing to do . . . to wanting to prove a point . . . that I am not playing around. . . . Eventually, maybe, you guys will make it into high school, then I will have to deal with you even more. Here is a good opportunity for me to prove a point and make you guys mature a lot faster. Then, unfortunate [sic] for you guys, you guys will probably now be in the system. You will have a criminal record. Just because you guys can’t figure something out here.

[H]ere is the thing right now ... I don’t care who is at fault, who did what. You hear that? I don’t care who did what, who is saying what, and whose fault it is. To me it is the same, same ticket, same pair of handcuffs.

With that, Deputy Ortiz declares that he is arresting the girls under a California statute that prohibits fighting, and (aided by Deputy Thomas), he handcuffs all seven. Six of the girls are transported in police cruisers to the sheriff’s station, where they are separated, interviewed, and eventually released to their parents. Ironically, Deputy Ortiz releases the main instigator, Amy, to her father on the school campus, without a trip to the station.

Upset at the treatment of their girls, the parents of Betty, Charlotte, and Deborah sue Deputies Ortiz and Thomas,5 for (among other thing) violating the girls’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizures.6

The Fourth Amendment, of course, gets a bit tricky when applied at school. Anyone who has ever been the subject of a surprise locker search knows that certain rights are checked at the door when you walk onto campus. Largely, the courts have reasoned (rightly so) that the need to manage the chaotic scrum of hundreds of school children requires a great deal of flexibility when it comes to disciplinary matters. Far more so than what Fourth Amendment would allow of authorities in adult society:

[T]he preservation of order and a proper educational environment requires close supervision of schoolchildren, as well as the enforcement of rules against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult. Events calling for discipline are frequent occurrences and sometimes require immediate, effective action. Accordingly, we have recognized that maintaining security and order in the schools requires a certain degree of flexibility in school disciplinary procedures, and we have respected the value of preserving the informality of the student-teacher relationship.

Even still, “flexibility” does not mean school officials have carte blanche to do anything and everything to the children in their charge under the banner of “discipline.” Rather, whether an action goes too far depends, mainly, on whether it is reasonable under the circumstances.

The Ninth Circuit, reviewing Deputy Ortiz’s actions, found he fell far short of reasonable. To start with, Deputy Ortiz didn’t know any specifics about the feud between the girls. He didn’t know who hit who. Let alone when or why. School administration had only given him “generalized allegations of group bickering and fighting,” not the specific information he would need to make an arrest:

Deputy Ortiz had no information suggesting that [Betty, Charlotte, and Deborah] were individually responsible as the instigators or aggressors instead of as the victims. In fact, had Deputy Ortiz even minimally inquired about the circumstances of the conflict, as he initially intended to do, he would have learned that [Betty, Charlotte, and Deborah] had tried that very morning to report [Amy’s] aggression to school administrators.

But even if Deputy Ortiz had known the full circumstances of the fights and took care to arrest the actual instigator (instead of the victims), according to the Court his actions would still have been disproportionate and unreasonable:

The summary arrest, handcuffing, and police transport to the station of middle school girls was a disproportionate response to the school’s need, which was dissipation of what [an assistant principal] characterized as an “ongoing feud” and “continuous argument” between the students.

Thus, Deputy Ortiz’s use of his arrest power to – in his own words – “prove a point,” was incompatible with the Fourth Amendment, even in the more “flexible” setting of a school.7

The arrest of a middle schooler, however, cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect. . . . An arrest meant only to “teach a lesson” and arbitrarily punish perceived disrespect is clearly unreasonable.

Read the full opinion here.

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