ACLU Files Lawsuit Charging Police And School Officials In Mississippi With Racial Discrimination And Excessive Force Against Schoolchildren

April 9, 2009

Incident On School Bus Exemplifies Dangers Of Using Police In Schools

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

SOUTHAVEN, MS – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging Southaven, Mississippi police and DeSoto County school officials with assaulting and racially discriminating against a group of schoolchildren riding home on a school bus.

In an egregious example of excessive and unwarranted use of force by police against students in a school setting, Southaven, Mississippi Police Sergeant Tomas Aguilar and Officer Lee Holiday responded to an argument between three students on the bus by arresting a half-dozen black students, choking and tackling a black female student and threatening to shoot the 30 students on the bus between their eyes. The entire incident was captured on videotape by a surveillance camera on the front of the bus. 

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi on behalf of the six students who were arrested and their parents, names as defendants Aguilar and Holiday, the city of Southaven, Mississippi, the DeSoto County School District and school district bus drivers Mary Robbins and Belinda Heyman.

"This case is a vivid and disturbing illustration of the dangers of relying on police officers to maintain order in public schools," said Jamie Dycus, an attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. "No sensible person handles an argument on a school bus by having armed police officers threaten, arrest and assault schoolchildren. What happened here was not only unlawful, but unconscionable, and those responsible must be held to account."

On August 12, 2008, an argument broke out between three students on a school bus taking DeSoto County Alternative Center students home after school. Rather than simply attempting to defuse the situation by separating the students, Robbins, who was serving as the bus monitor for the drive home, instead called the police and ordered Heyman, who was driving, to pull the bus over to the side of the road.

When Holiday and Aguilar arrived on the scene, Holiday immediately boarded the bus and verbally accosted the children, threatening to "run all your little asses in." Without making any determination as to whether any arrests were warranted, Holiday arrested the two students of color involved in the argument, telling one girl as he handcuffed her that he was going to take her "little ass down to juvenile hall." A white student who was equally involved in the argument was never arrested or charged by police, and was never subjected to discipline by the school district.

Several minutes later, after Holiday had pulled the two students he was arresting off the bus and placed them in the back of his patrol car, Aguilar boarded the bus and immediately began taunting the students by screaming, "You think this is funny?" and "Who wants to try me?" Aguilar then arrested three black students who had done nothing more than smile or laugh.

Aguilar then identified a sixth and final black student for arrest, despite the fact she had done nothing against the law. As she was walking off the bus in accordance with Aguilar's orders, she said she would be calling her mother. Aguilar responded by grabbing her by the neck, flinging her down into an empty bus seat and using the weight of his body to subdue her by landing forcibly on top of her. Aguilar then screamed into her face, "You don't talk to me like that! You don't talk to me like that! Do you understand?" Finally, Aguilar jerked the student to her feet, handcuffed her and took her from the bus.

Aguilar re-boarded the bus several minutes later and continued yelling at the children remaining on the bus, at one point screaming with his hand resting on the butt of his gun, "Y'all think this is funny? Y'all think this is funny? Wait until you get a bullet between the eyes."

In all, six students – all of them students of color - were arrested and ultimately charged with minor offenses like disturbing the peace. Aguilar is currently employed as a school resource officer at Southaven Middle School.

"The decision by the two school district officials to involve the police in an incident that involved nothing more serious than verbal arguing was irresponsible, and the behavior of the police officers was reprehensible," said Kristy Bennett, staff attorney with the ACLU of Mississippi. "There was absolutely no justification for even a single arrest, and there is no doubt that those who were arrested were singled out because of their race. The actions of the officers caught on video that day are just one more example of the problems our youth are dealing with in the school environment. The abuse of powers rampant in our schools these days is intolerable."

A copy of the ACLU's complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/crimjustice/juv/39309lgl20090409.html

Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/index.html

Additional information about the ACLU of Mississippi is available online at: www.aclu-ms.org

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