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A student arrested over classroom doodles that alarmed the school staff in the days after last year’s Sandy Hook school shootings has filed a civil rights suit in federal court.
The student, Kevin Jones Jr., who has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has an individual education plan that allows him to doodle in class because it helps him remain focused, the suit says. He is gifted in science and enrolled in a magnet engineering program, the suit says.
Jones, now 17 and a senior at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City, was in geometry class on Dec. 17, 2012, when teacher Megan Hallman became alarmed by one of his drawings. He was taken to the office of Vice Principal Michael McGhee, who asked to see his sketchpad. McGhee became concerned about a different picture than the one that caught Hallman’s attention.
The arrest was three days after the killings of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Citing that incident, the suit says the Galloway Police Department “overreacted to whatever the school district personnel informed them of with regard to [Jones’] drawing,” the suit says.
According to the suit, filed Jan. 10 in Camden, the first picture was of a spaceman and the second showed the glove of a spaceman with flames shooting out of it. Media accounts at the time of the arrest quoted the superintendent, Steve Ciccariello, saying the pictures showed weapons.
McGhee contacted Jones’ parents and the police in Galloway Township, where the family lives. Jones’ father consented to a police search of the family home, which turned up wires, switches and thermite, a substance used to make bombs. The suit said Jones had those items for school science projects.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office charged Jones with possession of a destructive device and attempting to possess a weapon, the suit said. Jones was ordered held in a youth detention center for 19 days, then placed on house arrest with an ankle bracelet. During this time, an unidentified German tutor sent to Jones’ home by the school district became concerned about a third drawing and tried to confiscate it, the suit says.
Superior Court Judge James Jackson dismissed the charge of attempting to possess a weapon, and following a two-day trial, Jones was found not guilty of the charge of possession of a destructive device on May 22, 2013.
The suit, which names the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and the Galloway Police Department, says officials erred by failing to consult with Jones’ case manager and child study team, who are familiar with his learning disabilities, before reporting him to the police.
It claims violations of his due process rights as a disabled student, as well as infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision and malicious prosecution. He also was subject to continued harassment from school officials in violation of the Law Against Discrimination and the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the suit says.
The suit seeks compensatory, statutory and punitive damages and attorney fees as well as an out-of-district placement for Jones at the defendants’ expense.
Plaintiff lawyer Julie Warshaw, a solo in Warren, says that the drawings that prompted the reaction were consistent with the boy’s artwork from years past and that the school officials’ response appears to have been influenced by the Sandy Hook shootings.
But she says the district failed to view his behavior in the context of his special needs.
“If a child is classified or has a disability, and they exhibit behavior that his inappropriate, the school district has to determine whether or not those behaviors are a manifestation of the child’s disability. And if they are, then they have to address it by doing a functional behavior plan. A child cannot be punished for a behavior that is stemming from his disability—it’s discrimination,” she says.
Galloway Police Chief Patrick Moran issued a statement that his department “acted responsibly with regard to the safety and well-being of everyone involved as recommended by assisting agencies, agencies that have advanced expertise in situations related to this incident. We followed proper protocol and believe that our actions were justified.”
Ciccariello, the schools superintendent, and Louis Greco, the district solicitor, did not return calls, nor did Galloway Township Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald. A spokeswoman for acting Atlantic County Prosecutor James McClain, Haleigh Walz, said the department had no comment on the suit.