In BB gun suspension case, AG Jeff Landry joins families fighting Jefferson Parish School Board

Ka'Mauri Harrison (maroon shirt) and his family meet with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in the Landry's office Sept. 28, 2020. Landry was a vocal critic of the Jefferson Parish school system's decision to suspend Ka'Mauri for having a BB gun visible in his bedroom while he virtually attended his 4th-grade class. (Photo courtesy attorney Chelsea Cusimano)

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry added the State of Louisiana to a lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish School Board brought by the father of a boy who was suspended in September for inadvertently making a BB gun visible in a virtual classroom.  The attorney representing 4th-grader Ka’Mauri Harrison and his father, Nyron Harrison, said Landry’s decision to fight the school board alongside the family “not only makes this case stand out, but highlights the importance of the underlying issues.”

Ka’Mauri was sitting in his bedroom Sept. 11 and taking a test for his 4th-grade online class when his little brother tripped over a BB gun on the floor.  In moving the gun out of his brother’s path, Ka’Mauri placed it where it was visible on his screen.  He was initially recommended for expulsion for displaying a weapon to his class, a punishment that was later reduced to a six-day suspension and, after a contentious Dec. 4 School Board meeting, was further reduced to a three-day suspension.

During last year’s second special session of the Louisiana Legislature, Rep. Troy Romero (R-Jennings) introduced the “Ka’Mauri Harrison Act” that explicitly gives students a right to appeal some school disciplinary decisions. The bill saied through the legislature without dissent. Even so, the School Board refused to wipe Ka’Mauri’s slate clean.

The Jefferson Parish School Board has argued that in virtual classroom settings, a student’s home becomes an extension of school property.  Chelsea Cusimano, the attorney representing the Harrisons, says that — unless a federal court rules against the Jefferson Parish School Board —  Ka’Mauri’s disciplinary record will reflect that he “possessed a weapon on campus.”

In a suit that was initially filed in state court in Jefferson Parish and then transferred to the federal court in New Orleans, the Harrisons claim, “This case arises from egregious government overreach,”  “a complete lack of common sense”  and “the glaring failures of local government officials to comply with law.”

Landry said in a written statement Monday that he joined the lawsuit because he “has long maintained that an individual’s private home is not an extension of the classroom, and he has taken a number of actions to defend Ka’Mauri and other students who were sent into a bureaucratic abyss for no reason and told there is no way out.”

Tomie Brown, another Jefferson Parish boy accused of making a BB gun visible during a virtual class the same week as Ka’Mauri, was also suspended and has also filed suit against the School Board.  Cory Dennis, press secretary for Landry’s office, said Monday evening that the attorney general will be intervening in Tomie’s, too.

Landry alleges the Jefferson Parish School Board “has interpreted and applied state law improperly by imposing mandatory expulsion statutes to conduct that is neither prohibited nor even covered by existing school discipline statutes.”

Cusimano said the state’s intervention is significant in a case “where we’ve had such negative results to date with our opposition, in terms of us not seeing any eye to eye as to any sort of middle ground.” 

“It’s really cool that the State of Louisiana and the ACLU,”which have historically been on opposite sides of issues, “see eye to eye on a case,” Cusimano said.

Cusimano said the state’s involvement also means the case could set a national precedent on virtual school punishment and the argument from the School Board that during virtual learning students’ homes are an extension of brick and mortar school buildings.

“If you look at a case in Michigan where it’s a kid versus a school system, then you look at a case in Louisiana where it’s a kid and the State of Louisiana versus a school system,” she said. “It begs to reason that one that involves the State of Louisiana itself is going to have more eyes on it.”

Victor Jones, a New Orleans civil rights attorney with an emphasis on children’s and disabilities rights, agreed that Landry’s decision to join the lawsuit is “a very big deal.”

“The attorney general is now asserting that (the State of Louisiana) is now a plaintiff in the lawsuit,” Jones said. “So this went from being an individual lawsuit to a lawsuit that will have broad implications.”

“This lawsuit has now gone from simply being about Ka’Mauri Harrison to the rights of all public school students in Louisiana,” he said.

When attorneys general join lawsuits, it often expedites resolutions in favor of the plaintiff, Jones said.

“This certainly doesn’t bode well for the School Board,” Jones said.