PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A third-grader was taken off a school bus and questioned for hours by police because another girl falsely reported the 8-year-old had chemicals in her backpack, her family said in a lawsuit Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, which filed the federal lawsuit against the town of Tiverton, compared the case to that of a Texas teenager who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school in September. The group said such actions terrorize and traumatize children.
The family's lawyer, Amato DeLuca, said police essentially arrested the girl with no evidence. They had already searched her backpack and found nothing when school officials allowed them to put her in the back of a police cruiser and take her alone to the police department, where she was questioned, he said.
"What we've stooped to in the name of public safety is arresting third-graders," he said. "It's so un-American. It's so police state. It's so Gestapo. I never thought we'd do things like that here."
Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik said he had not yet seen the lawsuit, and was still conducting an internal investigation.
"I'm a little disappointed, because I think there are other solutions," he said. He declined to comment further.
The child is identified in the lawsuit only by the initials J.A. Her parents, Lisa and Peter Andromalos, are also suing.
According to the lawsuit:
At school on Oct. 24, 2014, J.A. misheard what a friend told her. "It sounded like you said, 'We're going to play with chemicals,'" she told the friend, and both girls laughed.
Two other girls told a fourth-grade teacher that J.A. and her friend were talking about chemicals. The teacher sent them to report it to a guidance counselor.
The guidance counselor asked J.A. and her friend about it as they stood in line to go home on the bus. The two girls were upset and confused, but the counselor sent all four children on their way.
After the bus left school, one of the other girls then reported to a bus monitor that J.A. and her friend had chemicals in their backpacks. The bus driver stopped the bus and called police.
Officers met the bus, as did two school superintendents. Police took J.A. and her friend off the bus and looked through their backpacks, finding no chemicals. Officers detained the girls and took them to a police station. At some point while the girls were at the station, their parents were called. Police held and questioned the children for several hours before they were released into the parents' custody.
DeLuca said while they are asking for unspecified compensatory damages, their focus is to get the school and police departments to adopt rules that would prevent the same thing from happening to another child.
"The kid was just terrified. Upset, crying. It's a little girl. They both were. They didn't know what they did wrong. They felt intimidated by the police," DeLuca said. "If somebody told you that police arrest third-graders, you'd say, 'Nah, can't be.' But yeah, they do. In Tiverton, anyway."