CINCINNATI - A federal lawsuit alleges a 12-year-old was illegally arrested, improperly prosecuted and unfairly disciplined at Sycamore Junior High School over social media posts he made during the “crazy clown” craze last year.
In their suit, the boy’s parents say his Instagram comments made no direct threats, yet police unlawfully detained, searched and arrested him; school officials suspended and threatened to expel him in violation of district policy; and the county prosecutor continues to prosecute him under trumped-up charges in Hamilton County Juvenile Court.
The suit claims the school district and police conspired to make an example out of the boy by having him arrested him at school and leading him through the halls in handcuffs - against district policy - so other students could see and take it as a warning.
The suit challenges the constitutionality of the Ohio law under which the boy was later charged with communications harassment after the original charge - inducing panic - was dropped. The boy, now 13, denies the charges.
According to the lawsuit, the punishment against the boy started on Sept. 30, 2016 – the day after he made two posts on the Clown Clan Instagram account.
One post said: “DUMB F---- COME TO SYCAMORE YOU WONT”
The other said: “I’ll square up to these stupid coons.” According to the lawsuit, the boy intended to type “clowns” but mistyped the word and his phone autocorrected it to “coons.”
The boy used his own phone and Instagram account and posted from his home after school hours, the suit points out. He deleted his posts two hours later.
At the time, reports of people dressing in scary clown masks and clown suits were causing alarm in the Tri-State and around the country. Social media posts that these “crazy clowns” were seen near schools or intended to be in the area caused some schools and police to send warnings to parents. In extreme cases, a few schools closed.
After Sycamore officials encountered a similar post from another older junior high student the morning after the boy’s posts, the district alerted parents and said they considered them hoaxes and believed they posed no danger to students or staff. Yet, they called Montgomery Police to investigate, and police arrested the older student and walked him out in handcuffs.
According to the suit, the 12-year-old boy was in class taking a test when he was summoned to the principal’s office. Assistant principal Damon Davis pulled him into his office and informed him that another student had told school officials about his posts. Davis had the boy write a statement, then left the room, leaving a teacher with the boy. When Davis returned, the assistant principal told the boy he had violated the school’s Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying policy and had disrupted school and he was going to be suspended for 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion.
Davis then allowed Montgomery police Sgt. Gregory Harris interview the boy alone in his office. Harris searched the boy without a warrant or probable cause, failed to inform him of his Miranda rights and arrested him on a charge of inducing panic, the suit says.
The school tried to contact the boy’s parents, but failing to do so, took the boy aside alone anyway – against district policy, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claims police and school officials acted in concert against the boy. The boy’s father said he called Harris that afternoon and Harris said the boy could have been processed at school and released to his parents, but Harris said the school district “wanted us to arrest them.”
Later, Sycamore Superintendent Frank Forsthoefel reduced the boy’s suspension to five days and held his expulsion in abeyance. That was because the boy had not violated the HIB policy or disrupted school, the suit says.
Five months after the incident, the boy filed a motion last February to dismiss the inducing panic charge. That led to new charges.
“Knowing that the criminal charge … should be dismissed, the Hamilton County Juvenile Prosecutor instructed Sgt. Harris to bring new charges ... so that the case ... would continue. Thus, on April 12, 2017, Sgt. Harris signed three new complaints,” the suit says.
The new complaints, which accused the boy of harassing the operator of the Clown Clan Instagram account and causing public alarm through his Twitter feed are “patently false,” the suit claims.
But after dismissing the inducing panic charge on April 17, the prosecutor filed new three orally amended charges based on Harris’s claims, the suit says.
Those charges claim communications harassment, but the suit claims the Ohio law cited in the charges violates the boy’s freedom of speech.
The suit seeks monetary and punitive damages and an injunction to prevent further prosecution.
A Sycamore Community Schools spokeswoman said Thursday the district had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment. Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office spokeswoman Julie Wilson said the prosecutor is reviewing the lawsuit.
While social media "threats" of clowns caused a stir in several Tri-State communities last fall, many police departments expressed the view that most of the "threats" were pranks played by copy cats.
In one case, police charged a woman they said made up a report that she was attacked by a clown with a knife because she was running late to her job at McDonald’s. Around the same time, reports of clown attacks forced schools in Reading to cancel classes.
An officer responded to Sharonville Elementary for a report of a "clown" wearing gloves and large shoes in a wooded area at the school, police said. Police later said they found no evidence to indicate anyone was doing anything menacing in or near the school, they said.