Gang Activity Policies Addressed by Courts

Last Updated: February 24, 2011

This article appeared in the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Mississippi School District Clarifies Gang Policy After Court Ruling

The DeSoto County School District in Mississippi has settled a court challenge brought by a seventh-grade honors student who was expelled after school officials confiscated and searched his cell phone and charged him with “gang activity.” (See “Mississippi — Cell Phone Could be Searched after Confiscation.”)

The school confiscated the phone when the student was caught reading a text message from his father, a violation of district policy. School officials subsequently searched the phone and alleged that photos of the student dancing at home depicted gang activity and therefore grounds for expulsion.

The student challenged the confiscation and the expulsion in federal court. Earlier the court ruled that the school could take the phone but that the expulsion was arbitrary and the student’s challenge should be heard by a jury.

That ruling further stated that schools are on a “slippery slope” when they attempt to police the private lives of students and when they conclude that a student is a “threat to school safety” based on a subjective impression of off-campus behavior.

Rather than go to trial, the school district agreed to modify its gang policy and pay an undisclosed sum in a settlement agreement with the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union who filed suit on behalf of the student.

The district policy on gangs now identifies gang symbols that are prohibited.

Courtney Bowie, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, says, “Unnecessarily pushing kids out into the streets not only violates their rights but also serves to exacerbate any problems with gangs communities might be experiencing; expulsion makes innocent children vulnerable to gangs.”

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North Carolina District Clarifies Gang Policy in Settlement Agreement

The Durham Public School District has settled a lawsuit over its gang policy, which was challenged as violating students’ due process rights because it was unconstitutionally vague but used to justify the suspension and expulsion of accused students.

The suit was brought almost five years ago by a number of students. Since then one of the expelled students accused by the district of gang activity was murdered. The district later admitted there was no real evidence against the student, but the gang reputation followed the student and he was murdered by a person seeking admission to a rival gang.

The plaintiffs made numerous claims, including violations of equal protection and racially disparate discipline practices, on behalf of all students in the district who were subject to exclusion from school as a result of the gang policy.

The constitutional claim about vagueness was on appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court after surviving a motion by the district to dismiss. Attorneys for both sides finalized a settlement in court last month. As part of the settlement, all claims against the district were dropped in exchange for a change in district policy and payment of attorney’s fees for one of the lawyers on the case.

The prior Durham Public Schools policy allowed any “evidence” of gang activity or involvement to be punished, but it included no guidance on what students could wear or how they could behave to avoid violating the rules. The new policy will clarify these matters, and the parent-student handbook will list websites that provide more information on gang signs and indicators.

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Read more from the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.