Video shows Student Resource Officer Kyle Rooney talking to Narragansett High School student Michael Blanchette moments before the altercation on Feb. 9, 2018. (Image courtesy of ACLU of Rhode Island)
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island announced on Monday that it has settled a lawsuit against the Narragansett School System on behalf of a former student injured in an incident captured on the high school’s surveillance system in 2018.
The district has agreed to pay $75,000 in damages to Michael Blanchette, who was a student with special education needs at Narragansett High School when he was thrown to the floor in a hallway by Student Resource Officer Kyle Rooney. The school district did not admit liability in the incident, the ACLU notes.
Rhode Island Current reached out to the Narragansett School System for comment and received this emailed response:
“We’re referring all questions on this case to the Narragansett Police Department as we don’t comment on litigation.”
Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan sent this email:
“Officer Rooney remains assigned to the High School. There was no fault found in this settlement. NPD thoroughly investigates all Use of Force incidents and I maintain my position that, in light of the totality of the circumstances, Officer Rooney’s actions were lawful and appropriate. I view the settlement as a business decision made in response to the substantial risk and expense of litigation.”
“We’re pleased that we were able to settle the suit and get Michale Blanchett some monetary relief,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “This is one of many examples of school resource officers misusing their authority in the school setting.”
Amato DeLuca, Blanchett’s attorney, said he was happy that this matter is now resolved, but expressed disappointment with the lack of disciplinary action against Rooney.
Rooney is still listed as an SRO, according to the Narragansett Police Department’s website.
“They didn’t think he did anything wrong,” DeLuca said.
Thankfully, the Providence-based attorney said, Blanchette is doing well these days working in retail.
“He’s a really good kid, Michael’s come a really long way,” he said.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Blanchette was walking through the hallway Feb. 9, 2018, when he was stopped and questioned by Rooney.
Blanchette had an individualized education plan which permitted him to walk the halls without a pass during certain periods of the day, the ACLU said.
Surveillance video, which does not have audio, shows Blanchette flipping Rooney off after an argument. While trying to walk away, Rooney slammed the then-11th grader to the floor and pinned him for several minutes before placing him under arrest.
“The video sort of speaks for itself, unfortunately,” Brown said. “The abuse of force is really startling.”
In his police report, according to the ACLU, Rooney claimed Blanchette “aggressively took a step” toward him. Rooney charged Blanchette with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but both charges were later dismissed.
“If that recording were not available, it would have never been challenged,” Brown said.
The ACLU argued that Rooney violated Blanchette’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, retaliated against Blanchette in violation of the First Amendment, and unlawfully assaulted and filed unfounded criminal charges against him.
This incident, Brown said, is one of many reasons why resource officers should handle things like they’re in a school, rather than from a policing standpoint. He added that officers can sometimes escalate minor incidents into major ones.
“Which is exactly what occurred here,” Brown said. “If Michael had given the finger to a teacher, he probably would have been subject to some sort of disciplinary action. Instead, you have a police officer dealing with it and he’s forcibly thrown to the ground.”
The ACLU also has a separate lawsuit pending against the Pawtucket School Department over another alleged incident involving a student resource officer and a teenaged student.
“To the extent you have police officers acting as police in the schools, this is going to continue happening,” Brown said.
The Narragansett Police Department Use of Force Policy can be viewed here at https://public.powerdms.com/NSETTPD/tree/documents/425521
Corrigan said the policy in place in 2018 at the time of the incident was substantially similar.
This story has been updated to include comment from Narragansett Police Chief Sean Corrigan.
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