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‘You can blame Gov. Bill Lee’; lawsuit says new law wrongly punishing Tennessee middle school kids

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‘You can blame Gov. Bill Lee’; lawsuit says new law wrongly punishing Tennessee middle school kids

Jun 03, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Anita Wadhwani
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‘You can blame Gov. Bill Lee’; lawsuit says new law wrongly punishing Tennessee middle school kids
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Metro Police officers near the Nashville's Covenant School after a mass shooting on March 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Two families are suing Gov. Bill Lee and the Williamson County School District, saying their middle school kids were arrested, strip-searched, put in solitary confinement, sent to alternative school and then subjected to months of home visits by social workers and probation officers after school officials misinterpreted conversations between peers as “threats of mass violence.”

The lawsuit by families of a 13-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy arrested at school and expelled in separate and unrelated incidents said neither were guilty of making such threats.

Instead, the suit claims, what happened to the kids was an overreaction by school officials who, in one instance, said they regretfully had to follow new rules the governor signed into law last year.

“You can blame Governor Bill Lee,” Page Middle School principal Eric Lifsey told the parents of the 14-year-old boy accused of saying he would bring guns to school and had a bomb at home, according to the lawsuit. “We don’t think of you as a threat. That was never the case.”

The boy, identified as “B.N.”, denies making those claims; he said his only mention of guns was when he told friends about a lunchtime conversation he’d had with another boy who had described the firearms his grandfather owned.

Tennessee youth advocates concerned about bill to criminalize threats of mass violence

“This was an overreach and misapplication of the law, which resulted in a denial of their constitutional rights” Larry Crain, an attorney representing the families, said last week.

Crain believes that more students have been wrongly punished and could join the suit.

“We’re finding out there were other students who were similarly affected,” he said.

A spokesperson for Williamson County Schools declined to comment on pending litigation and could not immediately provide data on the number of students disciplined for making mass violence threats. Lee’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is challenging the way Williamson County education officials enforced the 2023 “zero tolerance” law, which requires districts to expel students for one year if they have been found to have made threats of mass violence.

The law defines the threats as speech that a “reasonable person” could conclude would lead to serious bodily injury or the death of two or more people.

In the instance of the 13-year-old — a student and cheerleader at Fairview Middle School identified in court papers as “H.M.” – school administrators cited a message she sent in a school email group chat that said “On Thursday, we will kill all the Mexicos.”

You can blame Governor Bill Lee. We don’t think of you as a threat. That was never the case.

– Eric Lifsey, vice-principal, Page Middle School

A full transcript of the group chat, later obtained by her mother, showed other girls on the chat teased H.M. for “looking Mexican.”
Then one friend asked, “what are you doing Thursday.”

“H.M. responded in jest, ‘on Thursday we kill all the Mexicos,’” the lawsuit said.

For her message, H.M. was arrested at school, brought to the Williamson County Juvenile Detention Center, forced to undergo a strip search, take a shower while a camera was trained on her and placed in a cell where she was questioned by officials who asked if she had ever had sex, an abortion or suicidal thoughts,the lawsuit said.

At one point the 8th grader became ill and vomited, but when she knocked on the door of her cell no one came to help, the suit said.

It would be more than 24 hours before her parents were allowed to see her, the lawsuit said.

Afterwards, the juvenile court process resulted in an order to evaluate H.M. for mental illness and retardation and she was offered a choice of voluntary or involuntary commitment to determine if she was competent to stand trial.

House toughens penalties for mass threats as Covenant School shooting anniversary arrives

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved legislation setting stricter penalties for threatening to commit mass violence on school properties or school-related events, making them a felony. Lee signed the measure into law on May 1.

Youth advocates warned the cumulative effect of the recent laws will lead to more kids being needlessly subjected to expulsions and months-long interventions that upend their lives.

“These punitive measures represent legislative overreaction to highly publicized school shootings,” said Zoe Jamail, policy coordinator with Disability Rights Tennessee.

“We have to find a solution to school threats that responds with reason, rather than reacts out of fear, and keeps students and teachers safe without unnecessarily disrupting the education and lives of young people and exposing them to the justice system, which as this case illustrates, has detrimental and life changing consequences.”

Mass Violence Threats challenge