An interrogation of a Rock Bridge High School student in May is at the center of a lawsuit filed against Columbia Public Schools, the city and several Columbia Police Department officers.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney J. Andrew Hirth, claims officers violated the 16-year-old student’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights when questioning her about an alleged sexual assault. It also claims a Rock Bridge school resource officer and an assistant principal violated school policy by allowing the student to be interrogated alone.
Defendants in the suit include the school district, Rock Bridge assistant principal Tim Baker, school resource officer Keisha Edwards, the city of Columbia and two officers identified only as John Does I and II.
The student was summoned to the school’s office May 22 to be questioned by police about a sexual assault that allegedly happened at the house of a student with the same first name as her.
The lawsuit claims Baker asked Edwards if he was needed during the interrogation, and she said no. Edwards then left the girl alone with the officers.
Columbia Public Schools policy requires that the school principal or a designated staff member be present when officers question students during the school day.
“We want to make sure the district follows its own policies and protects the rights of its students,” Hirth said.
No one notified the student’s parents of the questioning, and she didn’t believe she was free to leave, according to the lawsuit. She became more upset as the interrogation went on and started to shake.
The officers questioned the student about her knowledge of another girl, identified as Mary Doe in the lawsuit. She told the officers she was “generally aware” of the other student but did not know her personally. She also asked the officers if there had been a mix-up because she knew nothing about a sexual assault.
The questioning, which lasted 10 to 20 minutes, caused the student to miss her accounting class, for which a project was due, and she was too traumatized to take her anatomy final that day, according to the lawsuit. She had to finish the project over the weekend and come back and take her final the following Tuesday, when the rest of the students were on summer break.
The lawsuit says that the student usually receives A’s in her classes but that she did poorly on both assignments due to “extreme anxiety caused by her interrogation” by the two officers.
The lawsuit stated that the girl has general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical depression, and her mental health has worsened since the interrogation. She is receiving additional counseling.
The parent is seeking compensation for the student’s emotional distress and punitive damages against the defendants to deter them from similar conduct in the future. The lawsuit also seeks to prohibit Columbia police officers from seizing students at school and interrogating them “without a warrant, probable cause, exigent circumstances or parental/adult accompaniment.”
“We hear frequently from parents whose students have been questioned or even arrested at school,” Hirth said. “We understand there is a systematic (problem of) either questioning or arrest of students without parents being told or being present when they’re questioned. That’s a practice we’re hoping to stop.”
Finally, it requests that Columbia Public Schools be required to notify parents immediately if their children are being questioned by police and to have adults present with students during interrogations.
The Missourian reached out to Jill Schlude, deputy chief for the Columbia Police Department, and Michelle Baumstark, community relations director for Columbia Public Schools, for comment, but neither have responded.