The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the NAACP Providence Branch, the George Wiley Center, the American Friends Service Committee – South East New England, and Providence Student Union today filed an open records request with the Rhode Island State Police requesting the full report of its investigation, conducted in conjunction with the Pawtucket Police Department, into the actions of a school resource officer who was recorded body-slamming a 14-year-old student at Pawtucket’s Tolman High School on October 14. The groups are also seeking the evidence gathered in the investigation, as well as documents related to any review of the pepper-spraying by Pawtucket Police of students protesting on the day following the incident.
The request, filed pursuant to the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), was made after the State Police announced it had completed its review of the incident and found that the officer in question behaved appropriately. In their APRA request, the groups noted that they are not calling the report’s conclusion into question, but consider it important that the public be able to understand the report’s finding and see all the evidence used to reach this conclusion.
The public interest in both the incident and subsequent investigation is clear, the groups stated, pointing to the extensive media coverage of the incident, the subsequent student protests, and the important policy issues the incident raised. In requesting the release of the documents, the groups noted that in August the State Police voluntarily released a detailed report into the Cranston Police Department and its “Ticketgate” scandal.
“Like that report, release of this information would shed light on important government issues, and particularly the role, responsibilities and powers of school resource officers in the schools,” the groups stated. By releasing this information, the groups noted, the State Police would be acting in line with an October 20 memo released by Governor Gina Raimondo’s office that emphasized the importance of state agencies disclosing information under APRA whenever possible.
“In balancing the public’s right to know versus any general privacy interests, we clearly believe the public interest is paramount in this instance,” the groups stated. Recognizing the need to protect the privacy of some individuals whose statements contributed to the report, the groups reminded the State Police that APRA provides for the redaction of those names and other personally identifying information rather than withholding the records.
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: “Release of the State Police report and materials is critical to promoting transparency and the public’s right to know in understanding this controversial incident that brought to light the many serious concerns raised by the routine presence of police officers in schools”
Martha Yager, program coordinator for the AFSC – SENE, said today: “I find it disturbing that it is deemed acceptable for a police officer to slam a child to the floor in school and arrest him. When a young person is loud and angry, should not the response be to patiently defuse the situation? Are not schools among the places we should teach children how to deal with their anger and distress? Why are children arrested when no law is broken? We need these documents to get a better handle on how to change a system that criminalizes children at school.”
NAACP Providence Branch President Jim Vincent added: “Although the police officer in question was cleared, the NAACP Providence Branch finds the use of force on a 14-year-old child very disturbing and calls into question whether police officers should be in schools in the first place.”
After the October incident at Tolman High School, the ACLU called on all school districts that currently have school resource officers to re-evaluate their use in the schools and to revise the agreements they have with police departments that set out their job responsibilities.
A copy of the APRA letter is available here: http://riaclu.org/images/uploads/Tolman_High_School_State_Police_APRA.pdf
From an ACLU press release