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ACLU demands reform after 10-year-old girl arrested at school for a 'run-of-the-mill' dispute

Casey Harlow / HPR

A Hawaiʻi woman with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi is demanding policy changes at the state Department of Education and Honolulu Police Department after her 10-year-old daughter was interrogated and arrested at school for a “run-of-the-mill” dispute between children.

Tamara Taylor says her daughter’s constitutional rights — as well as her own—- were violated during the incident at Honowai Elementary School in Waipahu last year. The ACLU said Taylor's daughter is Black and disabled.

On Jan. 10, 2020, a parent complained to school officials about a sketch Taylor’s daughter and other students had drawn in response to another student allegedly bullying Taylor’s daughter.

At the parent’s insistence, school officials called police to the school where officers questioned Taylor’s daughter, arrested her, and transported her to the police station without alerting her mother.

Taylor also went to the school and was falsely imprisoned when school staff and police prevented her leaving two rooms she was confined to, the ACLU said.

The mother “expressed some concern about being African American in an encounter with the police” and was worried about her daughter's safety “in light of the police presence given the high rate of police violence against Black people, and the discriminatory disciplining of Black girls in schools,” the ACLU letter said.

The ACLU of Hawaiʻi joined Taylor in her push for policy changes involving police interactions with children at school. Wookie Kim is the legal director for the ACLU Hawaiʻi. He says there were other ways the school could have handled the situation.

"There’s an instinct… of calling the police first rather than trying other alternatives beforehand. In particular, one of the demands that we are making of the Department of Education is that school officials consult with the school counselor before calling the police. Unless of course there’s an emergency situation where someone is imminently threatened with serious harm and that simply wasn’t the case here," Kim said.

Other changes to school and police policy being sought by the ACLU include allowing parents or guardians to be with their child during an interrogation, and requiring that police issue citations instead of arresting a child suspected of committing a misdemeanor.

Taylor’s daughter has since withdrawn from the school and relocated out of state.

The ACLU wants the city and state to pay $500,000 in damages to the child and her mother for the harm and suffering caused by DOE staff and HPD officers.

The girl later told her mother that police made the child remove her shoelaces and earrings at the police station, but she didn’t know how. The handcuffs left marks on the girl's wrists, the ACLU said.

The ACLU is giving police, education officials and the state attorney general’s office until Nov. 8 to respond.

“The Department of the Attorney General is aware of the letter and will work with the Department of Education to respond,” Gary Yamashiroya, special assistant to the attorney general, said Monday.

Honolulu police are reviewing the letter and will work with city attorneys to “address these allegations,” said Sarah Yoro, a spokesperson for the police department.

State Department of Education officials declined to comment on the incident.

Read the full ACLU letter sent to officials in the box below or click here.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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