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Lynn Brown Authors, “Truancy Is Serious and Could Result in Your Child Ending Up In Handcuffs”

Brown_LynnA recent decision by a New York State court demonstrates the tremendous latitude given the police in addressing truancy issues. In Wai-Wai Choi v. City of New York, Index No. 155821/2012, the Supreme Court, New York County (D’Auguste, J.) granted summary judgment to the defendants, the City of New York, the New York City Police Department, and two police officers, finding that they did nothing wrong, at least from a legal standpoint, by placing an angry fifth-grader deemed truant in handcuffs.

The student was told he could not go on a school trip that day with the rest of his classmates. Angry, he left school on his own mid-day. Because neither his mother nor grandmother knew where the student had gone upon leaving school grounds, the police were called. After searching the school, two police officers located the student at his own home, along with his grandmother and an adult male, who allowed the police inside. While the student was on the phone with his mother, who was still at the school, the police took the phone out of the student’s hands and grabbed him when he went to retrieve it. The officers testified that when one of them tried to talk to the student, first he was unresponsive, and then, became physically aggressive after the female officer tapped him on the shoulder. The student was put in handcuffs, supposedly as a safety precaution. The student was then brought out of his own apartment against his will (resulting in some minor scrapes that did not require any medical treatment), and brought back to school. An ambulance was then called to the school to take the student to the hospital to be evaluated for psychological issues. His mother ultimately sued the defendants for false arrest/imprisonment, assault and battery, negligent hiring, training, and supervision, and under various civil rights laws.

Finding that some mistakes had been made along the way, the court nevertheless exonerated the defendants. The court found that the student, who, because of his age, legally belonged in school, was truant, and therefore, under New York’s Education law, could be arrested without a warrant. The court found that the police were complying with their instructions when they retrieved the student and brought him back to school, and thus, the “non-criminal” detaining of the student was legally privileged, and could not be the basis of a false arrest/imprisonment claim. The court also found that the officers had been granted permission to enter the apartment and had not used excessive force against the student, who had, in fact, resisted arrest.  For these reasons, and because the student’s injuries were only minor, the assault and battery claim also was dismissed.  The court also dismissed the negligent hiring, training, and supervision claim because the officers involved were acting within the scope of their employment.  The court dismissed the civil rights claims on the ground that the plaintiffs did not oppose dismissal of these claims.

To the court’s credit, it recognized that “this unfortunate situation likely could have been avoided had the school and/or police officers shown a bit more sensitivity and attention to the cultural and language issues presented in this case.”  It further noted that the reason given for not allowing the student to go on the school trip, i.e., that “‘he just came to the United States and is not familiar with what we’re doing here and the surroundings’ and that it would be ‘better’ if he stayed with his regular teacher, who was out sick that day,” was “deplorable,” and that the student’s frustration was “understandable.”

Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of this case, its message is clear: students under age 16 must attend school, lest they be deemed truant, a status that might subject them to being placed in handcuffs. If you are having trouble getting your school-age child to attend school for any reason, you should get legal help before the authorities step in.  Parents of truant children may also face legal action, including charges of educational neglect, made by Child Protective Services.