ACLU Settlement in Utah Student 'Gang Sweep' Lawsuit

Salt Lake City Police and School District to Change How They Treat Students of Color and Engage in School Disciplinary Issues

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
March 17, 2016 10:45 pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Police Department and the Salt Lake City School District will make broad changes in how they treat students of color and engage in school disciplinary issues under settlements announced today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The agreements stem from a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of students at West High School in Salt Lake City who were unlawfully detained and accused of participating in gang activity during a 2010 "gang sweep."

The students were of Latino, African-American, or Pacific Island descent, even though students of color comprised just half the student body. They were rounded up, questioned, searched, and forced to be photographed holding signs describing alleged gang affiliation. Their information was then documented and entered into a police database, potentially subjecting them to future unwarranted police scrutiny.

"These settlements send the strong message that it's not okay to criminalize students because of the color of their skin," said Sarah Hinger, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "The Salt Lake City Police Department and School District have agreed to significant reforms that will ensure school is a place that is safe, supportive, and protective of students’ rights."

Under the settlements:

  • Salt Lake City police will not conduct any operations like the 2010 gang enforcement operation.
  • Officers will not photograph students holding whiteboards identifying alleged gang affiliation.
  • Police will not use race, color, ethnicity, or national origin in exercising discretion to conduct a stop or search of a student.
  • Police will expunge records labeling plaintiffs as identified or suspected gang members or associates that were created during the "gang operation."
  • School administrators will only request the involvement of police officers when there is a serious and immediate threat to physical safety or to address criminal conduct of a non-student.
  • Police will no longer arrest students for behavior like profanity or fighting; such instances will instead be handled administratively by school officials.
  • School resource officers will receive annual in-person training that covers implicit bias, how to engage with youth, and more.
  • School district employees will receive training on the appropriate role of police, adolescent development, cultural competency, conflict resolution, and de-escalation.
  • The school district will amend its policies regarding prohibited gang-related activity to provide clear notice to students and parents, and it will publicly post data on police arrests in school twice a year on its website.
  • The school district and the police will establish an oversight committee that will review school-based arrests and other police interventions at least twice a year, meet with community stakeholders, and consider any concerns raised by community members.

The plaintiffs will also receive over $100,000 from the Salt Lake City Police Department, Salt Lake City School District, and West Valley Police Department.

Lead plaintiff Kaleb Winston was 14 years old when he found himself held in the school's detention room and accused of being a gang member. As evidence, the officers pointed to his backpack with the sketchpad in it. The backpack was a gift from his parents for getting an "A" on a test, and it was emblazoned with graffiti-style writing, reflective of his interest in skateboarding. The sketches were homework assignments from art class.

Although Kaleb protested that he was not part of a gang, the officers alleged that his backpack and sketches proved otherwise. He was interrogated, and his repeated requests to call his mother were denied.

"It was really traumatizing," said Winston, now 19. "I’m glad that because of this settlement, no other student will be forced to go through something like this ever again."

The settlement agreements are at:

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