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Sheriff’s Office Profiles New Jersey Student After School Shooting Thousands of Miles Away, Lawsuit Says

The student, whose last name is Mohammed, was subject to improper searches based on little evidence, his attorney argues.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Soon after a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas on May 18, 2018, a note warning of a “shooter in the building” was found in a men’s bathroom at Newark Tech High School in New Jersey. Even though video footage showed “perhaps over 100” students enter the bathroom where the note was found, officers from the Essex County sheriff’s office stormed the classroom of Imtaz Mohammed’s son and took the boy to the school office for questioning. 

Officer Allison Rooney allegedly ordered the boy to open his phone without reading him his Miranda rights. On the phone, officers found an unfinished message to the boy’s mother instructing her to give his belongings to a beloved relative. He was then suspended from school and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before he could return. He underwent the evaluation and was cleared, but Newark Tech principal Oge Denis Jr. wouldn’t allow him to return until he was cleared by the sheriff’s office. Students at Newark Tech mocked the boy and branded him a “terrorist.”

On May 19, Imtaz visited Officer Rooney at the sheriff’s office, where Rooney allegedly said, “We’re not saying your son wrote the note, but we believe he might know who wrote it.” Rooney again searched the boy’s phone, this time with Imtaz’s consent. On May 30, Imtaz’s son was finally permitted to return to school. At 9:55 a.m. the next day, however, a second note was found at Newark Tech, this time in its third-floor men’s bathroom. The boy was then sent home and ordered to be homeschooled pending an investigation. On June 1, Essex County officers stormed Imtaz’s home searching for “evidence of the crimes of terroristic threats … false public alarms … and unlawful possession of weapons.” The sheriff’s office seized laptops, desktops, and phones during the search, yet uncovered no evidence of criminal activity. 

At the end of last year, Imtaz filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Essex County sheriff’s office, Officer Rooney, Essex County Schools of Technology Board of Education, and Denis, claiming that the boy—named in the complaint as “Y.M.” because he is a minor—and his family were subjected to unconstitutional search and seizure and that Y.M.’s civil rights were violated when he was suspended. 

“There are certain procedures that a public school has to follow when you suspend them and force them to be homeschooled,” Y.M.’s attorney, Justin Santagata, told The Appeal. “He was suspended indefinitely, no due process whatsoever.”

Santagata said his clients believe Y.M. was targeted because of his last name, Mohammed. He said the Y.M’s unfinished text message to his mother on May 18 that aroused suspicion from the sheriff’s office “was sent by a scared student who thought there was a shooting at his school.” 

Santagata said Y.M.’s grades suffered because of the homeschooling order. Y.M. was not permitted to challenge the order, though his homeschooling instructor was not certified in all of Y.M.’s classes and couldn’t provide adequate instruction. “Because the Essex County Sheriff’s Office had confiscated laptops and desktops from Mr. Mohammed’s home, even if Y.M. could access his assignment and classroom documents from outside Newark Tech, it was a substantial burden for him to do so,” according to the lawsuit. Y.M.’s mental health suffered as a result of his experience with the sheriff’s office and being forced into homeschooling, Santagata said. “It clearly affected his perception of the way things are, the way things work.”

As a result of the investigation and subsequent indefinite suspension, Y.M. had to drop out of honors classes, and his reputation suffered among classmates and neighbors, according to the lawsuit. He’s now in a new school. Santagata said neither his client nor anyone else was ever charged in relation to the threatening notes in the school bathrooms. 

The attorney for the sheriff’s office, Alan Ruddy, declined to comment on the suit and declined to answer questions about the status of the sheriff’s office investigation into the threatening note. In an answer to the lawsuit complaint, Ruddy denied allegations related to the sheriff’s office and Officer Rooney, who was named in the suit. The general counsel for the Essex County Schools of Technology Board of Education, Murphy Durkin, also declined to comment on pending litigation. 

The complaint notes a memorandum between law enforcement and education officials in the state, last updated in 2019, that specifies that, once summoned to a school, law enforcement “assume[s] responsibility for conducting any search” and that “standards governing searches conducted by law enforcement shall prospectively apply.”

“Despite the memorandum, the Essex County Sheriff’s Office conducts school searches under the lesser-standard applicable to non-law enforcement officials, as evidenced by the conduct here,” the lawsuit states. On March 5, a joint discovery plan was filed by attorneys for the plaintiff and defendants; on Tuesday, a scheduling conference will be held in federal court in Newark. 

Kelly Welch, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University who researches racial and ethnic stereotypes and their effects on the school-to-prison pipeline, told The Appeal that “there’s a lot of research that shows that students of color are more likely to be targeted by teachers, principals and police officers in schools. … Kids who experience harsher treatment in schools are more likely to be funneled into the criminal justice system as they get older.”

The negative effect of increased police presence in schools—which spiked because of Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999 and the school shootings that have proliferated since then—is well documented, Welch said. But Welch pointed out that punitive school shooting interventions don’t actually make kids more safe. “People were really worried about the violence in schools. Schools adopted zero-tolerance policies and hired school resource officers,” Welch said. “It has not reduced school violence—but what it has done is criminalize students that wouldn’t have otherwise been criminalized.”

More than 800 students attend Newark Tech, but only Y.M. was questioned, according to the lawsuit. “There is no evidence that anyone other than Y.M. was questioned or searched; no one else was subject to consistent psychiatric evaluations; no one else was subject to indefinite suspension and home-schooling; and no one else was inadequately home-schooled and effectively told to teach themselves,” the lawsuit states. “The only differential fact between Y.M. and other similarly situated students is his apparent Muslim last name.”