Parents sue Tennessee governor and school district, claiming kids were punished after officials misinterpreted state statute

Two families have filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and the Williamson County School District, claiming their middle school kids were arrested, strip-searched, placed in solitary confinement, forced to undergo evaluations and placed on house arrest after officials misinterpreted a Tennessee statute and claimed that conversations between peers were “threats of mass violence.”

The lawsuit stems from two separate, unrelated incidents in August 2023 where a pair of students were accused of making threatening speech. However, according to the lawsuit, the speech used by the middle schoolers in the two separate incidents did not rise to the level of a threat of mass violence nor did it amount to actions “that a reasonable person would conclude would lead to serious bodily injury” or the death of two or more people, as defined in Tennessee statute 39-16-517.

The lawsuit challenges the way school officials applied Tennessee statute 39-16-517, a 2021 “zero tolerance” law that addresses communications of threats of mass violence on school property or at school related events and requires districts to expel students for one year if they have been found to have made threats of mass violence.

In an August 10, 2023 incident, a 14-year-old boy, identified as B.N., was accused by a fellow student of making threats about having a gun in his backpack, shooting up the school and having a bomb at home, claims the boy denied.

The boy said his only mention of guns was when he told friends about a lunchtime conversation he had with another boy who had described the firearms his grandfather owned.

Following interviews with school officials and police, B.N. “was taken into custody for violating” the Tennessee statute captioned “Threat of Mass Violence on School Property,” the lawsuit said.

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He was placed on a 24-hour solitary confinement hold, and required to strip down and change into jail attire while an adult male guard was facing away, the lawsuit said.

B.N. was incarcerated for four days and later placed under house arrest in the custody of his parents, according to the lawsuit. He was “completely banned from any Williamson County School grounds,” the lawsuit said. B.N. also faced a 365-day suspension under the zero tolerance rules.

According to court documents, after B.N. appealed the suspension, Williamson County Superintendent Jason Golden concluded that B.N created a rumor “of a threat of a weapon” at school, and although the “joke caused a disruption in school,” he could return.

“You can blame Governor Bill Lee,” Page Middle School Principal Eric Lifsey allegedly told the 14-year-old boy and his mother. “We don’t think of you as a threat. That was never the case,” the lawsuit said.

CNN reached out to Lifsey for comment.

A spokesperson for Williamson County Schools said in an email to CNN that the district does not comment on pending litigation.

Governor Lee’s office has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

“The new Tennessee zero tolerance law is being used as bludgeon against children who engage in innocuous conduct typical of all teenagers,” Larry Crain, attorney for the families, said in a statement to CNN.

The second incident occurred on August 22, 2023. According to the lawsuit, school officials said the text of a 13-year-old student at Fairview Middle School, identified as H.M., was deemed a “Threat of Mass Violence.”

The text, which was sent in a school email group chat, said “On Thursday, we will kill all the Mexicos.”

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According to court documents, the full transcript of the chat, later obtained by H.M.’s mother, showed that other girls within the chat were teasing H.M. for “looking Mexican because of her darker complexion.”

After one friend asked H.M. what she was doing on Thursday, H.M. “responded in jest, ‘on Thursday we kill all the Mexico’s,’” the lawsuit said.

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 individuals who asked if she had ever had sex, an abortion or suicidal thoughts.

H.M. was also suspended from school and was ordered to be evaluated for mental illness. She was offered a choice of voluntary or involuntary commitment to determine if she was competent to stand trial, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said the two students have “suffered a severe and serious emotional injury” and were “unable to adequately cope with the mental stress” from the circumstances surrounding their cases.

Since filing the lawsuit, Crain said in his statement to CNN that his office has learned of “several more children who have been wrongfully turned over to criminal prosecution” by the school district.

“This lawsuit seeks to declare this new law unconstitutional as applied to innocent acts of these children,” he said. “It also seeks compensatory damages against the school district for violating its own internal school board policies and routinely referring children for criminal prosecution.”

Zero tolerance policies create ‘threatening climate,’ report says

Everytown for Gun Safety released a 2022 report on how to stop shootings and gun violence in schools, in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, earlier that year.

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The report, which calls for the need to take meaningful action against gun violence in US schools, focuses on approaches that have been proven most effective and says most students facing crises will never act out violently and must not be treated like criminals. So-called “zero tolerance” policies, such as Tennessee’s, “can end up punishing students who exhibit behavior that actually requires compassionate intervention,” the report says.

According to Everytown research, zero tolerance policies can create a “threatening climate that instills fear and erodes student trust,” which can deter students from sharing information when they are concerned about classmates. The approach in these policies has had a “profoundly negative effect” on students of color, the research shows.

“Our recommended practice is the opposite of ‘zero tolerance’ and is not based on a punitive or criminal justice approach and should not rely on exclusionary discipline as a means of intervention,” Everytown’s report says.

CNN’s Emma Tucker contributed to this report.

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