A school resource officer in California arrested several middle school girls for being unresponsive while he investigated a bullying case. One of the girls was a bully. Three were her victims.
The case of David Scott v. County of San Bernardino began with an incident between seventh-grade girls at the Etiwanda Intermediate Middle School in Rancho Cucamonga. A teen bully hit another middle schooler, who reportedly did not fight back. The school suspended both the bully and her victim. (Assistant Principal Balbina Kendall informed the parents that it was “school policy to suspend any student involved in a fight, regardless of who was at fault.”) After the bully punched another girl, the two victims and a third middle schooler went to the school office to tell administrators about the bully’s continued threats.
The school asked Sheriff’s Deputy Luis Ortiz, the resource officer assigned to the campus, to provide mediation for the incident. The school placed everyone involved in the same room but failed to separate or identify the victims and the aggressor. Ortiz initially intended to verify the facts in the case, but soon he was accusing the girls of being disrespectful—based, he later said, on their “body language and continued whispering.” (A tape from the arrest indicates that the girls in fact remained “mostly silent” during Ortiz’s questioning.) He then arrested each girl in the room, saying he was trying to “prove a point” and “make [them] mature a lot faster.”
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the arrests violated the students’ Fourth Amendment rights, saying that the arrest of a middle schooler “cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect.” They also rejected the school resource officer’s argument that he had qualified immunity, which would have shielded him from legal repercussions had the court determined he violated a student’s constitutional rights.
Overreacting school resource officers are not a new phenomenon. In one infamous case, a Texas school cop convinced an assistant principal that it was possible that one of the 22 female students in a middle school choir was hiding a missing $50 in her undergarments, because “girls like to hide things in their bras and panties.” The ensuing mass strip search did not turn up the money, but it did inspire a federal lawsuit.