The 15-year-old had not played in the September 2022 rivalry football game between South Jones and Northeast Jones high schools in Ellisville, and he was ready to go home. He ignored the security officers who asked him where he was going as he walked toward his car near the rivalry team’s bus.

He also didn’t expect to see the officers and Jones County Sheriff Joe Berlin in the locker room calling out his jersey number. When he and the officers found the teen, Berlin began to yell at him. What the student athlete did outside moments earlier was seen as talking back, and the sheriff would not stand for it. 

In the heat of the comment, the teen cursed. The further disrespect led the sheriff to slam him into a locker, according to a federal lawsuit documenting the alleged use of force against the student athlete and other constitutional violations. 

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” the teen, who is identified in the lawsuit as CJW, told Mississippi Today. 

“But you took it too far,” he said of the sheriff’s actions. 

Cyntrelle Woodard-Wells filed the lawsuit Sept. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on her son’s behalf against the sheriff, 10 or more unnamed officers who were in the locker room and Jones County. 

County and sheriff’s department representatives referred comment to Brookhaven Attorney Will Allen, who is representing the defendants in the lawsuit. Allen did not respond to a request for comment. The defendants will have an opportunity to answer the lawsuit complaint in court filings.

Woodard-Wells said the Lord’s angels were with her son that night and kept him safe. She’s heard about too many instances of police brutality across the country that have led to the death or injury of young Black men. 

She was reminded of that reality about two weeks after her son’s encounter with the sheriff. On Oct. 6, 2022, 15-year-old Jaheim McMillan was shot by a Gulfport police officer and died days later in the hospital. In February, a grand jury cleared the officer. 

Broken trust

CJW, who is now 16, said before the incident with Sheriff Berlin, he never had a problem with law enforcement and that his mother taught him and his siblings to look to the police for help or protection. He said the experience left him uncomfortable and less trusting. 

The complaint alleges violations of the teen’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protects citizens from excessive force by law enforcement and unlawful seizure, and his First Amendment right of protected speech.

The lawsuit demands a jury trial, punitive damages of at least $500,000, compensatory damages of at least $75,000 and attorney and legal fees.

Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence, who is representing Woodard-Wells and her son, said the incident is not something a law enforcement officer should ever be involved in, especially because the teen didn’t do anything wrong or illegal. 

The lawsuit alleges Berlin verbally and physically abused CJW as an act of retaliation because he “mouthed off” to sheriff’s deputies while on his way back to the locker room. 

“Unhappy with the reports that a teenage African-American had disrespected law enforcement and the Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Joe Barlin entered the South Jones High School’s football locker room to confront C.J.W. and let him know he could not disrespect his department,” according to the amended lawsuit complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has a culture and pattern of retaliating against people who use their protected speech rights. 

Other lawsuits in federal court filed this year by Lawrence against Berlin and the sheriff’s office allege similar behavior, such as when the sheriff slammed a panhandler up against a car in Laurel on New Year’s Day, according to court documents. 

In January, deputies tried to search a Laurel home and ordered one of the residents out of his car and threw him on the ground and searched and arrested him without cause, according to court records. 

School takes disciplinary action

CJW and his mother thought everything was over after the football game, but it wasn’t.

On Monday at school, CJW said he was called to the principal’s office and asked to write a statement and that he would be sent home. The teen said it felt like the school turned on him and assumed he was in the wrong. 

By Wednesday, he was suspended five days for cursing, being out of area after the game and disrupting a school event, according to his mother. 

Then in early October, Woodard-Wells and her son attended a Jones County School Board hearing that was to determine whether to send CJW to alternative school – usually for students suspended for violent altercations – for 45 days or longer. 

She said they weren’t given much opportunity for her son to provide his perspective of what happened. The board decided on 45 days of alternative school and sent the family a notice in the mail saying they had a right to appeal the decision. 

By the end of the 2022 semester, Woodard-Wells decided to withdraw CJW and her other three children from the Jones County schools. At the beginning of this year, they moved and the children started school in a nearby county in south Mississippi. 

Superintendent B.R. Jones and School Board Chair Jerry Terry Jr. did not respond to a request for comment. 

Five day’s suspension and placement in alternative school are allowable punishments for cursing and disrupting school events, according to the Jones County middle/high school student handbook. The handbook includes a disciplinary ladder with seven steps of consequences and it lists various behaviors that will refer a student to the principal’s office. 

The five days’ suspension and 45 days of alternative school would have placed CJW between steps six and seven of the disciplinary ladder – the top end for school discipline and for behaviors such as disrespect and campus disruption, according to the handbook. 

‘It’s an overreach of school authority’

Charles Bell, an assistant professor in the criminal justice department at Illinois State University, studies school suspension and how punishment disproportionately affects Black students. 

He said what happened to CJW is in line with the type of punishment that has happened in Southern schools. 

“It’s an overreach of school authority,” Bell said about suspensions for in- and out-of-school behavior. “It’s indicative of over-policing of students and it really creates an environment where students feel unsafe.” 

Suspension is harmful because it takes students out of the classroom and can make it difficult for them to catch up on assignments, leading some to drop out of school, Bell said. He said suspensions can also affect parents who work full time and might risk employment to pick up their child from school after a suspension. 

When looking at what happened to CJW, Bell said it was problematic that the school district’s handbook mentions students’ rights and responsibilities, but doesn’t define what their rights are.  

In Jones County, students suspended for more than 10 days or expelled have a right to due process via a hearing, right to have legal counsel and present evidence  and right to cross examine any witnesses. Due process is mentioned in the district’s policy but not the handbook.

Bell said suspension is often the way that students are pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline. Research shows that students who are disciplined in school are at a higher risk of entering the juvenile justice system and later the adult criminal justice system. 

One of Bell’s research focuses is on students and families who leave the school district after facing challenges from school administration. Especially for Black parents, they don’t always know if the next district will be worse for their children because nationally there is a lack of transparency in school disciplinary data, including suspension rates, he said.  

Woodard-Wells said one of the driving forces to move her children to a new district was to keep them safe. Thankfully, they have adjusted well, she said. 

CJW joined his new school’s football team and started playing a new position. He said the team is helping him become a better athlete, and he participated in other sports after football season.

“It’s a way better environment,” he said about his new school, team and city. “It’s better for me and my brothers and sister.” 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.