School district accused of retaliation over earlier civil-rights suit

A mother in Mississippi has taken her local school district to court after her son was expelled from high school for what the school says was "gang activity" but what the mother and her supporters at the ACLU say was nothing more than singing and moving to the beat.

What's more, the lawsuit claims the school's actions were retaliation for an earlier civil rights lawsuit against the school board.

The 15-year-old student at Olive Branch High in Olive Branch, Mississippi, was expelled on the first day of the school year for what school officials say was "gang activity" -- the student, named only as "A.S." in the lawsuit, had allegedly made gang signs during a school assembly.

According to Courthouse News, when the student's behavior was noticed, "a police officer working at the school took A.S. to the principal's office, where he was accused of throwing 'gang signs,' then suspended and expelled."

But the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is aiding A.S.'s mother in the suit, says the boy was merely singing to himself and "bopping his head and bumping his fists to the beat."

As the ACLU noted in a statement released earlier this week, A.S. was one of six students and their parents who filed a civil-rights suit against the DeSoto County School District alleging that "county authorities assaulted and racially discriminated against a group of schoolchildren riding home on a school bus."

The students won that lawsuit on August 6 of this year. On August 10, the first day of school, A.S. was expelled.

"To expel a high school freshman from school simply because he was singing to himself during an assembly is patently absurd," said Kristy Bennett, Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi, in a written statement. "A.S. has never been involved in gang activity and school officials never claimed that he was associated in any gang, disrupting any other students or interfering with any school activities. Rather, it is clear that A.S.'s expulsion was motivated by his involvement in the previous lawsuit."

Because the school district would not talk to the press, the local ABC affiliate had to get the school's side of the story from students.

“In our school handbook, you're not supposed to throw up gang signs," student Charles Jones told the TV station. “As to what I heard, he was like jumping around, throwing them [gang signs] up. He wasn't really cussing, but he was getting pretty close to it.”

The lawsuit marks the third time the ACLU has challenged the DeSoto County School Board in court. "Taken together, the lawsuits reveal a systemic pattern of arbitrary and unlawful conduct by school and police officials and highlight the disturbing national trend known as the school-to-prison-pipeline, wherein children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems," the ACLU stated. "All too often, as all three ACLU lawsuits show, children of color are disproportionately targeted by such policies."

A.S. has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the school "is aware of A.S.'s condition and has identified him as a student with special needs entitled to receive special education services," Courthouse News notes.