POLICE INTERVIEW OF SON ENRAGES MOTHER - The Explorer: Import

POLICE INTERVIEW OF SON ENRAGES MOTHER

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Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Ramona Johnston, the former leader of the group that recalled three Amphitheater school board members last year, says she is planning to sue the school district, the Pima County Sheriff's Office and the Oro Valley Police Department as a result of Ironwood Ridge High School officials allowing officers from the two police agencies to interview her son as a witness to a suspected sexual assault on campus.

She is also packing up her family and moving to Missouri this week where she will enroll her 14-year-old son in high school, saying the Amphitheater School District "can't handle kids."

Johnston said she is furious that the school allowed police to question her son Sept. 6 without first asking her for permission.

She said by allowing her son to be questioned by police, school officials jeopardized her son's safety in the school.

"As soon as he went back to class (the accused student) came up to my son wanting to know what he told the cops," she said.

"There's no way I would have allowed (police) to question (her son). They should have called me first."

The sheriff's office was investigating a report of sexual assault that involved a freshman boy and the daughter of one of the high school's teachers. The Northwest EXPLORER is withholding the names of the students because of their age and the lack of details provided by the school district or the Pima County Sheriff's Department about the incident and the investigation.

Johnston said she was told by her son and the mother of the girl assaulted that the incident involved the suspected youth placing a wrapper from a sports drink bottle down the front of the girl's shirt.

Johnston's son and another boy were witnesses, Johnston said.

Johnston said her son was interviewed by PCSO Deputy Jim Miada and OVPD School Resource Officer Curtis Hicks. However, an OVPD spokesperson said the investigation was being conducted by the county and Hicks was only in the room as part of his duties as a school resource officer and that he asked no questions.

Initially, IRHS Principal Sam McClung told Johnston they didn't need her permission to allow police to talk to her son about what he saw, but when she insisted they did, and referred to the district policy manual, Johnston said Assistant Principal Mike Brown called her back to apologize, saying he hadn't fully read the policy.

McClung and Brown declined to comment on Johnston's charges, as did Associate Superintendent Richard Hooley. All three referred calls to district legal counsel Todd Jaeger.

Jaeger said in some circumstances schools can act as a surrogate parent, in what is referred to in legal language as in loco parentis.

"It's a long standing doctrine that schools act as the parents during the time when they're in school," Jaeger said.

But when asked about the incident involving Johnston's son, Jaeger said he wasn't sure if in loco parentis was "relevant" to Johnston's situation.

According to district policy, no "nonschool agency" can question a student, or remove a student from school, unless "authorized in writing by the pupil's parent or legal guardian, or is permitted and authorized by law."

The policy goes on to say that law enforcement officers may question students without parental consent when there is a warrant for a student, or if the student is suspected of a crime.

"If law enforcement officials have no warrant to arrest or search a student and none of the above-listed grounds for taking custody of the student exist, law enforcement officials are subject to general district policy requiring parental notification and consent before a student can be questioned on campus," Amphi policy states.

OVPD's patrol supervisor, Cmdr. Larry Stevens, said police officers can ask to talk to anyone, adult or juvenile, "whenever they want."

He said in Johnston's case, the school was acting as the parent and provided the permission to speak with him. He added, however, that if the police officers had gone to Johnston's house to speak with her son, Johnston could have refused to allow them to speak with him.

"If she said 'no, we couldn't talk to him,' then we wouldn't talk to him," Stevens said.

Miada's supervisor, Sgt. Scott Lowing, said the sheriff's office has its own policies for questioning juveniles.

"There's no law when questioning juveniles (at school). As a matter of fact, that tends to impede our investigation at times (when school administration gets involved)," Lowing said.

When asked in what circumstances a deputy might need permission, Lowing said, "We never need (permission), regardless of what school policy is."

Johnston said she believes Lowing is wrong and that she thinks the police departments are being arrogant in insisting they can speak with children whenever they want regardless of parent wishes.

This is the second time Johnston has battled the school district over her son's treatment. When her son was in sixth grade at Coronado elementary school, he got entangled with a girl who was a chronic discipline problem and who had threatened or attacked a number of students, including Johnston's son.

Johnston said the school district handled that situation so badly, she pulled her son out of school and home schooled him until this year.

"That was one of the reasons I decided to head up the recall," Johnston said. "I thought it would be better (with a new school board) and my son could go back to public school and start high school. And here we are, 20 days into the school year and this happens."

"This is a result of the no tolerance (discipline) policy. (The district is) just going to continue to be out of control in how they deal with kids because of that policy," Johnston said.

"I'm concerned because this happened to (her son) twice. How many more times is this going to happen?" Johnston said.

As for deciding to leave town, Johnston said it was a difficult position but one she had to make for her son.

"It's been really tough on (him). We've lived in Oro Valley for six years and Arizona for 10. He's been here since he was four. This is his home," Johnston said.

"Now I'm watching my whole life be packed up in moving boxes."

She said her grandchildren live with their father in Missouri. Her husband is an independent truck driver, which she said allows her family to live wherever they want.

Johnston said, though she is leaving town, she will still press ahead with her lawsuit and that she has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to explore whether her son's civil rights were violated.

She said she has yet to retain a lawyer or file a lawsuit.

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