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ACLU continues fight for child arrested for a threatening drawing

The 2020 arrest of a 10-year-old Black girl who had drawn an offensive picture at school was a violation of her civil rights, the ACLU has said.

HONOLULU (CN) — A federal judge heard arguments Monday for the dismissal of a case against the city and county of Honolulu and the state Department of Education for the arrest and treatment of a young Black girl in January 2020 after she drew a threatening image of another student.

The ACLU filed the complaint on behalf of the girl and her mother, Tamara Taylor, in January of this year. The suit follows a 2020 letter sent to the city, the state DOE and the Honolulu Police Department that demanded more comprehensive policies for police involvement in schools. A response letter by HPD denied any racial motivation in the arrest and stated that the officers had reacted appropriately to what they considered a genuine threat of significant harm.

Taylor's attorney, Mateo Caballero, said the drawing, which he described as, “the result of a run-of-the-mill school squabble,” should never have been criminalized in the way that it has.

Alongside the government agencies, the lawsuit also individually names the HPD officers that arrested the girl, as well as the vice principal of Honowai Elementary.

The suit accused the officers of false arrest and excessive force. The suit also included claims for disability and race discrimination. The girl, identified in the suit as N.B., was ultimately never criminally charged.

The government pushed for a dismissal of the complaint, and especially addressed the individual officers named in the suit. Robert Kohn, attorney for the city and county of Honolulu, countered the plaintiff’s assertions that the arrest and handcuffing were unconstitutional, saying that there are not specifics for handcuffs based on age of the arrested person.

“Probable cause was provided by the drawing, N.B. admitted authorship by the time HPD arrived,” he said.

“She was calm, she was compliant, she was not a flight risk,” Caballero countered. “The handcuffs themselves can be considered excessive force.”

The city contended that Taylor’s claims lack standing, saying that the HPD officers operated under information they had upon arrival, which indicated that N.B. posed a legitimate ‘terroristic’ threat to the school.

According to the complaint, police were summoned to Honowai Elementary School in Waipahu on Oahu the day after N.B. drew an image of what has been characterized as a graphic depiction of a figure holding a gun and with a severed head at the feet. The figure was accompanied by threatening phrases, including, “Stand down B**th”, “Yo F**kin days are over NOW”, and “Fake to me and DED!”

Proceedings in the case have been marred with controversy over the drawing in question, which has not ever been publicly shared. Even at Monday’s hearing, ostensibly about the dismissal motion, the city attorney drew attention to the fact that the drawing has never been produced.

Senior U.S. District Judge Hellen Gillmor maintained her September decision to deny the city and the police officers’ request to produce the drawing at Monday’s hearing, emphasizing that questions over the actual authorship of the drawing, as well as chain of custody issues still remain.

After HPD officers arrived, they allegedly handcuffed the girl and questioned her about the drawing without her mother present. The complaint also contends that other students had participated in the creation of the drawing, but only N.B., the sole Black student involved, was arrested.

The child, who has ADHD and a Section 405 behavior plan at the school, reportedly used the drawing as a coping mechanism for bullying at school. According to the complaint, although N.B. had not wanted the drawing shown to anyone, the drawing was eventually brought to the attention of a Honowai staff member. Police were only called the next day after a parent became upset with the image.

ACLU attorney Jongwook Kim and Caballero argued that the school and HPD failed the girl with the lack of policy written on how to handle situations like this with minor children in schools.

“Opposing counsel concedes that age is not defined in the policies. The policies are deficient,” Kim said.

Gillmor, a Clinton appointee, asked the plaintiff's attorneys to review their complaint and parse out the claims more specifically for the individual defendants regarding city and state laws.

“Case law says to look at the situation. It is the context that is important,” Gillmor said.

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