Attorneys for a disabled girl and her mother are demanding $500,000 in damages after police allegedly detained and handcuffed the girl at school before bringing her to the Pearl City Police Station.

Lawyer Mateo Caballero and the ACLU sent the letter to the Honolulu Police Department and Hawaii Department of Education Monday. It also calls for changes in the way police deal with incidents in schools after the 10-year-old girl, identified only as “N.B,” was allegedly handcuffed with “excessive force,” falsely imprisoned, and discriminated against because she is Black due to a dispute regarding an offensive drawing.

The incident occurred on Jan. 10, 2020. Tamara Taylor, the girl’s mother, got a call from staff at Honowai Elementary regarding an incident involving her daughter and another student.

Honowai Elementary School cafeteria with special UV-C lights hanging from ceiling.
The mother of a disabled student at Honowai Elementary School alleges that her 10-year-old daughter was handcuffed and taken to the police station in an incident involving a drawing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

When Taylor arrived at the school, an officer told her that the parent of another student insisted police be called in response to the incident, although the officer never explained the incident in question, according to the letter.

Taylor eventually learned that her daughter took part in drawing an offensive sketch relating to the other student. According to the letter, the drawing was in response to bullying.

While Taylor spoke with Honowai staff members and the police officers, her daughter was allegedly in another room alone with police and DOE staff. Taylor had assumed that her daughter was in class until she heard a school staff member say, “We have to let (N.B.) out of the room soon. She says she is cold and lonely,” according to the letter.

School staff then allegedly told Taylor that the parent of another student insisted the school call police and barred her from leaving.

“Ms. Taylor then attempted to leave the room, but as she was exiting she was approached by a Honowai staff member with their hands up telling her that she could not leave,” according to the letter. “She was then escorted to another room to ‘stay and wait.’ … Ms. Taylor was being detained.”

Two officers eventually told Taylor to follow them to the Pearl City Police Station shortly after she was informed that her daughter would be suspended for two days from school.

Taylor asked why she was being told to go to the police department and was shocked to learn that was where her daughter was going, according to the letter. She then drove to the police department, where authorities released her daughter to her after she had allegedly been in custody for four hours.

Girl Transferred To Another School

Following the incident, Taylor sent a grievance letter to Honowai Elementary and Leeward District Superintendent Keith Hui detailing the encounter.

“I was stripped of my right as a parent and my daughter was stripped of her right of protection and representation as a minor,” Taylor wrote. “There was no understanding of diversity, African American culture and the presence of police involvement with the African-American youth. My daughter and I are traumatized from these events and sure that there is no future for us at Honowai Elementary.”

Through later conversations with school staff, Taylor learned that the drawing had been taken by a teacher on Jan. 9, 2020 and it was the parent of a third student who wanted to press charges, not the parent of the student who had initially received the drawing, according to the letter.

In the wake of the incident, Taylor filled out paperwork to allow her daughter to transfer to a new elementary school.

On May 7, 2020, Taylor filed a complaint with the HPD against the three officers who responded to the elementary school. In the complaint, she said she had not been informed of the charges against her daughter and said there was a lack of probable cause for the arrest. She also complained about being denied access to her daughter while the officers “interrogated” her without her mother’s consent.

On September 21, 2020, HPD’s Professional Standards Office responded with a letter saying that it did not have sufficient evidence to sustain the charges made in the complaint.

In response to the incident, Caballerro and the ACLU sent a list of demands to the HPD and DOE “to settle their claims against the city, the State, and their agents.”

The demands include a call for the DOE to adopt policies forbidding staff to call police to deal with a student unless the student presents an imminent threat of significant harm to someone and to allow parents or legal guardians access to their children while on school property.

Additionally, the letter demands that the DOE adopt a policy requiring parents or guardians to be present whenever a minor student is questioned or interrogated by police about potentially criminal behavior and requiring consultation with a school counselor before calling the police unless there is an emergency.

The letter also calls for the expungement of all records related to N.B.’s alleged arrest and demands that $500,000 in damages be paid to Taylor and her daughter “for the harm and suffering caused by DOE staff and HPD officers.”

A lawsuit has not yet been filed and Caballero is giving the city until November 8 to respond.

“We’re trying to avoid litigation,” Caballero said. “I believe in giving parties the chance to do the right thing without any litigation and I think there are a number of steps that can be taken here to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

In a statement, HPD spokeswoman Sarah Yoro said, “The department is reviewing the letter and will be working with Corporation Counsel to address these allegations.”

The DOE did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) showed that nearly 25% of all police referrals to schools in Hawaii are for children who are disabled.

In the nationwide analysis conducted to better understand who is being impacted by police in schools, the CPI found that students with disabilities and Black students were the most likely to be the subject of police calls in school. Each demographic had a rate of 8.4 referrals for every 1,000 students.

According to the CPI, 4.5 students are referred to law enforcement for every 1,000 students at the school. The numbers vary by state, but disabled students were referred to police at a higher rate than all other students in all 50 states.

“From our perspective, police involvement should be a last resort and for situations that are true emergencies when violence is involved,” Caballero said. “None of those factors played a role here or were present here.”

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