Last year, an off-duty police officer placed a 12-year-old girl in a prolonged, illegal choke hold while breaking up a fight at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, high school. Now the girl and her family are suing the officer, claiming his actions amounted to excessive force and an illegal arrest.
According to the lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Shawn Guetschow, an off-duty Kenosha police officer who worked as a security guard at a local high school, unlawfully restrained a 12-year-old girl while breaking up a fight that happened last March. The complaint alleges that the sixth-grader — named only as Jane Doe — acted in self-defense after being attacked by another student in the school cafeteria. While trying to break up the fight, Guetschow allegedly fell backwards while holding Doe, hitting his head on the cafeteria table.
According to the complaint, Guetschow appeared to believe the girl caused him to fall, prompting him to fight back. He “immediately grabbed Jane Doe around her neck and placed her on the floor in a prone position,” placing his knee on the girl’s neck and pushing her face into the floor. The lawsuit further alleges that “at various times, Guetschow shifted to increase the pressure he was applying his knee to the back of Jane Doe’s neck.” Doe told Guetschow she couldn’t breathe, but they ignored her.
Eventually, Guetschow handcuffed the girl and arrested her — later urging his colleagues to press charges against the girl. While Doe was eventually charged with misconduct, the girl’s family attorney, Drew DeVinney, told CNN that the issue was “resolved” and she was not convicted.
The complaint alleges that as a result of the suffocation pressure, Doe suffered a range of injuries, including “traumatic brain injury, cervical sprains and recurrent headaches.” The incident also allegedly caused her to experience “mental trauma and distress, including severe emotional distress, requiring Jane Doe to undergo mental health treatment and counseling and to change schools.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit alleges that Guetschow’s actions constituted an unlawful use of excessive force and an unlawful arrest and therefore violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights. “Shawn Guetschow’s unreasonable and excessive use of force against Jane Doe was the cause of the injuries sustained by Jane Doe, including the violation of her constitutional rights, loss of liberty, past and future pain,” the lawsuit states, adding that Guetschow “acted with with malicious intent or reckless disregard of Jane Doe’s federally protected rights.”
The complaint also seeks to hold the local police department responsible for the incident, accusing it of knowing Guetschow could become violent. “Guetschow’s field performance [at a different police department] was labeled ‘unacceptable’ and he was described as ’emotional, panicked or losing his temper,'” the lawsuit states. “Failure to adequately train and supervise off-duty officers, including Guetschow, caused Jane Doe’s injuries.”
“She is humiliated, she is traumatized. Every day I have to hear ‘Dad, I don’t want to go to school’.” It breaks my heart because I wasn’t there to help her,” said Jerrel Perez, the girl’s father, at a news conference in March. “I want to see this officer charged because if I, another parent, or any adult put a knee on a child , that would be abuse.”
It’s unclear whether the lawsuit will succeed, particularly because of broad qualified immunity protections that largely shield police officers from liability in cases of civil rights violations. Regardless of the outcome, however, the lawsuit sends a clear message to Kenosha police—and any officers who might be inclined to use excessive force when breaking up schoolyard fights.
“This happened at a school,” DeVinney said at a press conference in March. “Let this be a learning opportunity for those responsible. If you commit an act of unlawful violence against one of our children, the legal consequences will be severe.”