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Family of Cedar Creek High School student sues over school reaction to drawing of flaming glove

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The family of a Cedar Creek High School senior said he was arrested, strip-searched, criminally charged, kept in juvenile detention over Christmas 2012, and banned from school for more than 14 months.

A vice principal set off the massive public safety response after seeing a drawing by the student, identified in court papers as K.J. Jr., that depicted a flaming glove.

Now, the student, his two siblings and their parents, Kevin and Teresa Jones, are suing the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District, Galloway Township police, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and other officials. They accused school officials of bullying and harassing the teen, who has an Autism spectrum disorder, saying it caused their family psychological and emotional harm, anxiety, sleeplessness and stress.

They said township police acted with “deliberate indifference” in the anxious days following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that saw jumpy administrators order several school evacuations.

“In reality, we followed what we’re trained to follow,” district Superintendent Steve Ciccariello said at the time. “I’m thankful that we had a staff member that (saw something that) caused her some concern, and that she had the sense to report it to school officials. These are things that teachers receive training on all the time.”

Ciccariello declined comment Wednesday. District solicitor Louis Greco said the district was unable to comment on the suit without a release from the family.

Galloway Township Police Chief Patrick Moran said the township would vigorously defend itself in the suit, and he believes it will be successful. He said township “officers are well-trained and professional, and I am confident they acted appropriately.”

The engineering magnet program was what drew K.J. Jr., now 18 to Cedar Creek in 2010. The Jones family said in filings, “K.J. is a very gifted child in the areas of chemistry and engineering and likes to do experiments in his back yard, fixing things, building and creating things, and drawing things.”

K.J. Jr. has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder, the family said in filings. But they claim the district’s professionals repeatedly misdiagnosed the boy, keeping him from being properly educated. The family declined further comment through their attorney Julie M.W. Warshaw.

The school first suspended K.J. Jr. after he “ignited an incendiary device on a school bus and was in the possession of two knives” on Oct. 20, 2011, according to a school district legal filing. The district suspended him until Jan. 27, 2012, the family said in filings — longer than is permitted by state law.

Then, three days after the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., family filings say geometry teacher Megan Hallman noticed a knot of students watching K.J. Jr. draw a “spaceman” in class.

The family said his individual instruction plan had permitted him to draw and doodle since he was in fourth grade. But district filings show Hallman reported the incident to a guidance counselor. K.J. Jr. was summoned the following day to Vice Principal Michael McGhee’s office, where family filings say he was coerced into revealing his sketch pad.

“In said sketchpad, there was an updated version of a drawing of a superhero glove with a flame coming out of it,” the family said in a state Administrative Law Court filing. In a separate federal filing, the family said the picture, drawn at home, was part of a 2-year-old project based on the “Ironman” movies.

McGhee called police and K.J. Jr.’s mother, saying her son was in his office. Family filings said he kept her on the phone until officers arrived at the house, followed by the fire department, emergency medical technicians and a bomb squad.

Police at the home found what the family in court filings said was some of K.J.Jr.’s science and engineering homework. Authorities at the time described them as chemicals that could produce an explosion.

Filings said police found wires, switches and thermite; an easily made compound — often from of rust and powdered aluminum — that is generally legal to possess in New Jersey. Thermite is difficult to ignite, but once ablaze, it burns at a high temperature and can cut and weld metals.

It does not explode.

After the district called police, Cedar Creek Principal James Reina issued an all-call notification to about 5,000 households in the district, while bomb-sniffing dogs from three counties unsuccessfully combed the school for explosives.

A school resource officer took K.J. Jr. to the police station, where family filings said township police did not allow him to contact his parents, and he was taken to the juvenile detention center Harborfields. There, family filings said he was stripped, cavity-searched, and held for more than two weeks.

This happened even though Moran told The Press of Atlantic City the day of the incident, “There was no indication he was making a bomb, or using a bomb or detonating a bomb.”

Once released, a court order confined K.J. Jr. to his house, where he wore an ankle tracking device. Atlantic County sheriff’s officers checked on him periodically.

Outside school, family filings said, he got less than the minimum 10 hours of instruction per week from visiting teachers, who apparently watched him carefully. At one point, they said, a school German tutor saw another drawing and tried to confiscate it.

The family said K.J. Jr. also was kept from attending a school trip to Boston in May 2013, after the district said he posed a behavior issue.

Authorities charged K.J. Jr. with possession of a weapon — an explosive device — and attempting to possess a weapon. Superior Court Judge James L. Jackson dismissed the second charge, and then found K.J. Jr. not guilty of the first charge on May 22, 2013, after a two-day trial. Jackson ruled there was no malicious intention.

The family’s suit also named assistant county Prosecutors Anne Crater and Lauren Kirk, saying they maliciously filed the attempting-to-possess charge when K.J. Jr. would not admit to possession. This came even though their expert’s eventual report said the prospective “glove device” would not be a weapon. County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Jay McKeen declined comment.

Even after Jackson found K.J. Jr. not guilty, family filings said the district still banned him from Cedar Creek. The district finally allowed him to return in March, but only on a limited basis. It was not clear from filings whether he would graduate, or if he does, whether he would walk with his class.

The family said in filings Greater Egg Harbor Regional should pay for his education until he turns 21, as well as summer instruction, all independent evaluations and experts. They also demanded an apology from all parties, as well as reimbursement for their expenses and unspecified damages and penalties.

Contact Derek Harper: