Richfield students subjected to daily searches after homecoming shooting, lawsuit alleges

High school exterior
A federal civil rights lawsuit alleges that Richfield High School unfairly disciplined three students after a homecoming game shooting that didn't involve them.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

By Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Two Richfield mothers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Richfield Public Schools Monday, alleging that the district imposed discriminatory disciplinary practices against their children after gunshots were fired at a homecoming game last year. 

Although the three Richfield High School students were not involved in the shooting, the lawsuit says, administrators suspended them, subjected them to daily searches, banned them from extracurricular activities, and required them to have an escort in order to move throughout the school.

The lawsuit was filed by Leah Harris and her twin sons, who are African American and Asian American, and Tara Behl and her son, who has a disability. The district and several administrators in Richfield Public Schools are named as defendants in the case.

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“The daily restrictions included a search of their persons consisting of empty pockets, lifting up pant legs, remove shoes, opening and checking waistbands, and opening containers to smell for alcohol,” the lawsuit alleges. “A comprehensive search of their belongings included opening and rummaging through backpacks.”

The boys found the restrictions humiliating and confusing, said attorney Margaret O’Sullivan Kane, who is representing both families in the lawsuit.

“They lost education,” she said. “They were embarrassed in front of their peers, humiliated, harassed, subsequently followed, and treated poorly. And yet there was no explanation.”

The school did not provide reasons for the restrictions or respond to data requests to show why the students were being singled out, the lawsuit says.

Richfield Public Schools declined to comment, citing the open litigation.

According to the lawsuit: All three students were attending the Richfield High School homecoming football game on September 23, 2022 when a shooting took place nearby. Two people were injured. None of the students in the lawsuit were involved in the shooting, but Richfield Public Schools suspended each of them for three days. 

The notice of suspension alluded to the altercation at the football game, but did not describe any of the students’ alleged roles in the “significant disruption,” the suit says. As a condition of returning to school after the suspension, the three students faced searches and discipline for months afterward.

Kane said that the district failed to balance the need for security with “reasonable human judgment.”

“A shooting at a public school is a really profoundly difficult thing to understand,” she said. “We want to make sure that our schools are safe. But there has to be some causal connection in order for you to be punishing children.”

Richfield High School administrators also confiscated the students’ phones daily, and prohibited them from participating in extracurricular activities, including athletics and prom, according to the lawsuit. Outside of passing time, lunch, and recess, the three teenagers could only go to the bathroom if they had an adult escorting them.

The lawsuit also alleges that Richfield High School administrators attempted to require the students’ parents to enroll their children at Richfield’s alternative high school for at-risk youth, South Education Center Academy (SECA). 

“Richfield has a pattern and practice of disproportionately removing minority and disabled students to SECA for minor behavior infractions whereas Caucasian and non-disabled students are not referred to SECA for similar infractions,” the lawsuit says.

Harris’ twins faced these restrictions until after winter break, when they returned to school on January 3, 2023. But even then, a dean continued to escort them throughout the school. 

Behl refused to allow her son to be subject to the restrictions after he was suspended in September. As a result, the lawsuit says, her son “was unable to attend high school until the restrictions were lifted.” After engaging legal counsel, Behl’s son returned to school without restrictions on May 3, 2023, but the dean continued to escort him “at all times outside a classroom.” By that time, he had missed nearly a full year of school.

The lawsuit claims legal infractions including violation of constitutional rights, racial discrimination, disability discrimination, and violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

Kane said the families hope to “vindicate their sons’ rights” through the lawsuit. However, she added, “vindication is very limited in the court of law.” Though a letter of apology would be “meaningful,” she said, the law cannot force anyone to apologize.

“The only avenue you really have left is to sue for money,” she said.

The lawsuit did not specify an amount of monetary damages.