February 14, 2020 [Wise, VA] — This week, attorneys from Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) secured an $86,000 settlement from Wise County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Adkins, who unlawfully tackled a 14-year-old middle-school student in 2018.  The settlement followed a federal judge’s ruling that the student had “made a strong showing that [the deputy]’s conduct constituted a constitutional violation as a matter of law.”

In April 2018, Adkins was working as a school resource officer at a Wise County middle school when he received a report that a nude photo of a student was being circulated among the school’s student body.  Adkins demanded that an 8th-grade student hand over his phone, but refused to explain his basis for wanting to search the boy’s phone.  After leading the student into the school’s hallway, Adkins grabbed him using both arms, tripped his legs, and slammed him to the ground.  Adkins then placed all of his weight on the child for nearly twenty seconds.  The boy was diagnosed with a concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of Adkins tackling him.  The boy’s cell phone contained no nude photos—or any other evidence of criminal conduct—as Adkins’s own search of the phone confirmed.

Adkins later acknowledged, in sworn testimony, that the student did not pose a threat to any person and was not behaving in an aggressive manner.  Video footage from the school’s security camera showed that the boy was acting in a calm and nonthreatening manner when Adkins tackled him to the ground.

After the Wise County Sheriff’s Office refused to take any action to discipline Adkins, the student filed a federal lawsuit in the Western District of Virginia, claiming that Adkins violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using unjustified and excessive force.  In his pretrial ruling issued last month, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones rejected Adkins’s attempt to avoid a trial on the matter and rejected most of Adkins’s arguments in defense.  Instead, the court held that “a middle school student posing no imminent risk of harm has a right to be free from excessive force,” and that “th[is] right was clearly established when Adkins used force against [the boy].”

Following the ruling, Adkins issued a formal, written apology to the child and his family in which Adkins acknowledged that he “could have attempted to communicate” with the boy before tackling him.  Adkins also promised to undergo specialized training on the proper use of force in schools and vowed “to make better decisions” in the future “so that no other families have to go through a situation like this.”

Shortly after issuing the apology, Adkins agreed to pay the family $86,000 in order to settle the family’s Fourth Amendment claim.

“Our family’s lives have been upended by what the officer did to our son,” the boy’s parents said.  “This needless violence against schoolchildren has to end.  It makes no sense that Wise County school resource officers aren’t trained on the proper amount of force to use against kids.  The Sheriff’s Office has now heard that message loud and clear—and it’s a message that should be heeded widely.”

ICAP partnered on the suit with attorney Michael A. Bragg of Bragg Law PLC, located in Abingdon, Virginia.

The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) uses the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values.  Based at Georgetown Law, ICAP draws on expert litigators, savvy litigation strategy, and the constitutional scholarship of Georgetown to vindicate individuals’ rights and to protect America’s constitutional way of life.  ICAP is involved in a range of cases addressing the rights of minors at school, including this case and Stinson v. Maye, a Title IX lawsuit in which ICAP represents an Alabama teenager assaulted by her classmates.  More information about ICAP can be found at https://www.law.georgetown.edu/icap/.