After receiving a text message from his father, 12-year-old Richard Wade, an African-American Southaven Middle School honor student, opened his phone to read the message during football class, a violation of school rules. Rather than simply confiscating the phone and turning it in to the school office as required by policy, several school officials searched through the private and personal pictures Richard had stored on the phone. The phone was subsequently turned over to police, who claimed that the pictures constituted “gang-related activity” and “indecent pictures” – in reality, the photos mainly depicted Richard dancing in the bathroom of his home. Richard was suspended for three days and was ultimately expelled.
In September of 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Richard’s behalf, charging that the searches and expulsion violated his rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as his rights under the Mississippi Constitution.
This lawsuit is the second of three federal civil rights lawsuits filed by the ACLU against school and police officials in DeSoto County, Mississippi since April 2008. 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. All too often, as all three ACLU lawsuits show, children of color are disproportionately targeted by such policies.