NARRAGANSETT – The Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the Town of Narragansett in federal court recently, in a complaint alleging that Narragansett Police Department (NPD) Officer and School Resource Officer at Narragansett High School (NHS) Kyle Rooney assaulted and wrongfully arrested a student at the school in 2018.
The complaint stems from an incident on Feb. 9, 2018, in which Michael Blanchette, an NHS 11th-grade student on an individualized education plan (IEP), was moving through the school’s hallway when he was approached by Rooney. According to the lawsuit, Rooney accosted Blanchette on his being in the hallway. Students with IEPs are allowed to move through NHS’ hallways freely at certain times throughout the day, and the complaint alleges that the altercation between Rooney and Blanchette occurred during one such period. According to the lawsuit, Rooney detained Blanchette and told him to proceed to a particular classroom “without authority or probable cause.” In response, Blanchette told Rooney about his right to be in the hallway at the time, but this was rejected by Rooney. As Blanchette turned to leave, he displayed his middle finger to Rooney, which allegedly prompted the school resource officer to “reach out and grab Blanchette, violently slamming him to the ground.” Blanchette was later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, which were ultimately dismissed months later.
“Officer Rooney’s actions violated Michael Blanchette’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure, the use of excessive force, and to exercise free speech under the First Amendment,” the 22-page complaint reads. “Officer Rooney’s actions were condoned and approved by the Chief of the Narragansett Police Department, the Narragansett Police Department, Narragansett School System officials, and the Town of Narragansett. As a result, Michael Blanchette endured an unwarranted prosecution for noncriminal conduct, experienced school discipline, in addition to the physical harm inflicted upon him and the embarrassment, shame, and loss of standing in the community caused by his wrongful arrest and prosecution.”
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for Blanchette and alleges 11 counts against a variety of named defendants - the Town of Narragansett, Narragansett Finance Director Christine Spagnoli, NPD Chief Sean Corrigan, Rooney, Superintendent of Narragansett Schools Peter Cummings, and NHS Principal Daniel Warner. ACLU cooperating attorney Amato DeLuca filed the suit in federal court last week on behalf of Blanchette.
“While defendant Rooney was unlawfully seizing the plaintiff, staff personnel from the Narragansett School System observed his actions and took no steps to intervene, passively observing defendant Rooney’s excessive force in continuing to hold, restrain, and choke the plaintiff,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit alleges that Blanchette’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures were violated in the incident, which was caught on video from a nearby school surveillance camera. The complaint also states Blanchette’s First Amendment rights of free speech were violated when Rooney retaliated to Blanchette’s expression of his “dislike and displeasure for [Rooney’s] unlawful orders,” among other charges. The suit also seeks monetary damages as Blanchette allegedly suffered physical pain and suffering, as well as emotional distress and incurred medical costs and lost income as a result of the altercation.
“When he had me pinned on the ground, the entire time I was asking him if he was arresting me and he wouldn’t respond to my questions,” said Blanchette. “While he was on top of me, he would explain all these different wrestling moves and army moves that he was doing to me. I was crushed by him for what felt like a very long time, and this all started because I was only doing what my teacher allowed me to do by taking a walking break in the hallway. It was very upsetting how he instantly targeted me.”
“Schools have a mission of great importance to our state and to our nation,” said DeLuca. “They are responsible for keeping our children safe while educating them. Clearly, neither the Narragansett School Department nor Police Officer Rooney subscribes to these noble principles. Instead, as this incident with Michael graphically demonstrates, they have trampled on students’ rights and undermined their feelings of safety by allowing and engaging in the excessive use of force.”
Both Corrigan and Cummings denied comment for this article, with Corrigan citing the open litigation and Cummings citing privacy laws preventing him from commenting on current or graduated students.
Rooney has not been fired from NPD.