A 10-year-old was accused of making a bomb threat at his middle school, and the boy's parents say his rights were violented twice: first when administrators confiscated his cellphone, then with an out-of-school suspension they couldn't appeal.
The family's story shows how this could happen to your child. The upshot is that parents and students need to know their rights, and even then, it can be hard to assert them.
It all started when 10-year-old Davante Shelton used the "Super Power FX" app on his iPhone at East Windsor Middle School. It got Davante into big trouble this year, which came as a surprise to his father Derrick, who says the fifth-grader brings home good report cards and honors.
Len Besthoff: He never really had any discipline issues?
Derrick Shelton: Period. Never.
East Windsor Middle School experienced three bomb threats in two weeks back in February. The second one, which occurred Wednesday, Feb. 11, involved writing on the wall of a boy's bathroom.
In a police report, school administrators said Davante and a classmate lied about being in that bathroom until confronted with security video. The boys still denied making a threat, but administrators believed Davante and his calssmate "did write the message... or have knowledge as to who did."
Another student told administrators Davante and the classmate were making a video in the bathroom, described in the police report as showing that a student's head "disappears, reappears, and then explodes as if it was a bomb."
"I just couldn't understand the whole situation," said Davante's father.
Both Davante and his father insist that the video, and the app that created it, have nothing to do with bombs or the bomb threat.
"This is preposterous, if I should use that word. It's nothing! They're just putting something together that's not really there," Shelton said.
Davante showed administrators the video that day, explaining that people are "teleported" in the app. He also demonstrated the app to us. A person disappears and reappears, and there's a puff of smoke and a fireball, but no explosion like a bomb.
Once administrators ruled that someone had pulled a prank and the bomb threat was not real, the school lockdown was lifted.
Davante and his classmate, though, were each given 10-day suspensions for what the school called "their lying and deceptive behavior that kept the school in lockdown… as well as the video and its contents."
Police decided not to pursue criminal charges.
Shelton believes his son has been scapegoated.
"This kid doesn't even want to go to school anymore," he said.
A police report indicates that, after handing down the suspension, an administrator again asked Davante to open his phone so the district could record the video. Davante's father refused.
"She says, 'Well, you're not going to get the phone, you can't get the phone until you open the phone,'" Shelton recalled.
Davante's father said he then let administrators go through the phone again. He also ended up hiring attorney Keith Yagaloff.
Yagaloff contends the second phone search was illegal, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions Riley v. California and New Jersey v. TLO, which only allow warrantless cellphone searches at the beginning of a critical incident at a school, not once a situation is deemed safe.
"They had an obligation to release the phone back to the parents," Yagaloff said.
Yagaloff, a former board of education member in another town, believes the East Windsor school district violated state law when it refused to allow Davante's family to appeal his suspension, citing Connecticut General Statutes 10-233c, which says, "no pupil shall be suspended without an informal hearing by the administration."
"They claim that discussion occurred prior to the suspension, when they were meeting with the child about the video game; they say that was his opportunity to explain what was going on," Yagaloff added.
The East Windsor school district says it cannot comment on the situation, citing federal privacy laws. As for the Sheltons, their sons are applying to transfer to the Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford.
"It left me with a bad taste in my mouth, knowing that as a parent, as a dad, how much I love my kids and there's nothing I could do to help him at the time," Shelton said.
A final note: The day after Davante got in trouble, when he was home from school on suspension, the East Windsor Middle School had another bomb threat.
So far, police have not ruled anyone to be responsible for any of the incidents.