Trials & Litigation

Family sues over police handling of a false claim about chemicals in 8-year-old girl's backpack

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The family of a Rhode Island elementary school student filed a federal civil rights suit Thursday against Tiverton police and school officials.

It alleges that a third-grader was taken off a school bus and questioned at a police station for several hours last year after another student incorrectly claimed that the 8-year-old girl and a classmate had chemicals in their backpacks, according to the Associated Press and the Providence Journal. The police reportedly searched the girls’ bags and failed to find any chemicals before taking the girls to the police station and questioning them. Their parents were not alerted until the children were already at the station, the suit says.

Although police found no chemicals or other wrongdoing by the girls and no disciplinary action was taken by the school, the plaintiffs Lisa and Peter Andromalos say their daughter was traumatized by the incident and that the officers’ actions amounted to an arrest. The school also contacted the parents of all the other elementary school students that evening and informed them incorrectly that two children had made threats to set a school bus on fire and claimed to have chemicals, the Providence Journal reports. (The child who made the false report was disciplined by the school, according to their suit.)

“What we’ve stooped to in the name of public safety is arresting third-graders,” said attorney Amato DeLuca, who is representing the family along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. “It’s so un-American. It’s so police state. It’s so Gestapo. I never thought we’d do things like that here.”

In addition to compensatory and punitive damages and attorney’s fees, the suit seeks a court ruling that authorities acted illegally by detaining and questioning the girl. It says there was no probable cause to arrest, search, detain and question the child and points to an alleged lack for training of Tiverton police and school officials.

Matthew Wojcik, who serves as town administrator, declined to comment specifically on the suit since he hasn’t seen it and an internal probe is still ongoing, the AP article reports.

“I’m a little disappointed, because I think there are other solutions,” he said.

Attorney Stephen Robinson, who represents the school, also said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit and the school superintendent and police chief couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, the Providence Journal says.

Robinson said a police incident had occurred, the newspaper reports, and said he believes authorities acted appropriately.

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