Colerain High School / Enquirer file
CINCINNATI -- Parents of four black students filed a federal lawsuit against Northwest schools and the Colerain Township Police Department Tuesday alleging their children were kicked out of school and denied due process because of their race.
The $25,000 lawsuit alleges the constitutional rights of four Colerain High School students were violated April 10.
That's when school administrators and Colerain Township police allegedly rounded up the students, "held them in a windowless room guarded by armed police officers for upward of six hours and interrogated them" about alleged gang-related affiliations discovered through social media.
Administrators accused more than a dozen students of making "street" signs and belonging to a gang.
The suit alleges white students engaged in similar conduct and were not questioned or disciplined.
"It is not a crime to be an African-American teenager. Yet, on April 10, 2014, Colerain High School administrators in coordination with Colerain Township police officer acted as if it were," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says the allegations were unfounded and the school district violated the students' right to free speech, to be free of unreasonable search and seizure and said it violated their due-process rights. It also said the students were harassed by the district and forbidden from participating in extra-curricular activities once they returned to school.
School officials referred inquiries to district attorney John Concannon.
"We believe that this was handled properly," he told the Enquirer. "To have ignored the threats would have been wrong. To investigate them fairly was the way to handle it, and that's what we did."
He said the lawsuit contains significant inaccuracies, including implying that only African American students were disciplined. He said students of other races were suspended and expelled too.
"The district recognizes that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the school door, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court and other case law," he said in a statement the school issued Tuesday. "However, the district does recognize its right and duty to limit student speech when those actions interfere with the safety of students, or the ability of the administration to maintain a school environment that is conducive to learning. "
The families also filed a motion asking the courts to expunge the expulsions from their kids' records. At a press conference Tuesday the parents described their children as student athletes who got good grades.
Most of the expulsions stemmed from videos shared on social media in which students made rap videos and flashed hand gestures associated with hip hop culture, attorneys said. They called themselves the "money gang" but it was just a group of student athletes who hung out after school -- not a real gang, the parents said.
They said they don't think the district -- which has a small but growing number if black students -- understands the hip hop culture. Teressa Heath, one of the students' mothers, said Colerain police harassed her son all summer and kicked him out of the Taste of Colerain.
She moved into another school district so her son would have a chance at college.
"He's been at Colerain since second grade so this is devastating to him," Heath said.
Kim Sargeant said her son, a senior, made one of the videos in question as part of a project for his social media class. He got an A, she said.
Michael Packnett said his son, a junior, was manhandled by police because, they said, he wouldn't give them his cell phone.
"He was choked down to the ground," Packnett said. "He said he was seeing stars. These kids were treated like criminals."
Parents said their complaints to district officials fell on deaf ears and the expulsion hearings didn't give their kids a fair chance. They sought legal action to get their children's disciplinary records expunged and to change the culture of racial intolerance at the 9,000-student district.
The Enquirer reported on the April 10 incident, when rumors circulated that someone made a threat on social media that a shooting was going to occur on campus. Upset parents flocked to the school to pick up their children.
The school disciplined several students and called in extra police to escort them off campus. One of the infractions was a dress-code violation regarding a potential gang reference on a student's sweatshirt, police said.
At the time, the police chief said officers searched cell phones and social media and found no evidence of the threat, according to The Enquirer story.
The school sent a letter home to parents about the incident. The letter made vague references about rumors of gang activity, and a recent shooting in Green Township.
Police Chief Mark Denney previously told the Enquirer a former Colerain High School student was wounded in a recent shooting on Cheviot Road and the suspect was a Colerain High School student. Friends of the victim and the suspect both attended the high school and had been yelling back and forth, he said.
All four students represented in the case were suspended and expelled, said Robert Newman, senior partner at Newman & Meeks, Co., L.P.A. in Cincinnati, the firm representing the parents.
Newman said three of the students have returned to school, and the fourth transferred to Fairfield Senior High School.
"We are only asking that the record of expulsion be deleted from these school records be expunged form these school records so that these expulsions do not appear on college applications," Newman said. "We don't want their college futures and post-secondary school futures injured because of what we feel were illegal expulsions."
Read the original story: Parents of Cincinnati students file racism suit