A Concord, N.H., high school senior who was handcuffed in the cafeteria by the school’s on-campus police officer says her civil rights were violated.
School officials defended the use of handcuffs on Mary Nowlin, 18. They said she was disruptive and refused repeated requests by Assistant Principal Tom Bazos and the on-campus police officer to accompany Bazos to his office.
The incident began when Bazos accused Nowlin of spilling juice on the cafeteria floor and trying to squirt a friend with a water bottle. Nowlin denied it, and Bazos asked her to come to his office to discuss it.
“I wanted to talk to her about what happened, but she didn’t want to come,” Bazos said. “She got loud, defiant, and disrespectful.”
When Nowlin began yelling, Bazos called on Officer John Zbehlik for assistance, concerned the situation would escalate. Zbehlik said he asked Nowlin several times to leave quietly, and when she refused, he handcuffed her.
Nowlin and her parents say she had no prior record of misbehavior and was simply defending herself against a false accusation. They said they will meet with school administrators to discuss the incident, but if they are unsatisfied with the school’s response they may sue.
“I was being blamed for something I didn’t do,” Nowlin said. “Of course I was going to be upset.”
She was later suspended for one day.
Claire Ebel, director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said it was “indefensible for a young person to be handcuffed in front of her classmates and taken off like a criminal because she had the audacity to loudly proclaim her innocence.”
Ebel said the Concord School Board should establish clear guidelines for school police officers, to ensure they do not overreact when dealing with students.
“This is not an armed hostage-taker. It is absolute rubbish for people to excuse this based on Columbine,” Ebel said, referring to the deadly high school shooting last year in Colorado.
But Kevin Nolan, who trains school resource officers in New Hampshire and serves as regional director of the National Association for School Resource Officers, defended Zbehlik’s use of handcuffs. He said it was justified for Nowlin’s safety and the safety of other students.
“To provide a safe situation, sometimes you have to do things that, of course, not everyone agrees with because they only see what happens from the outside,” Nolan said.
Allenstown police Chief Jim McGonigle, who previously worked as a police officer at Concord High, said disrupting the educational environment constitutes disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor under state law.
Also, he said, “If there are no handcuffs, you’re gambling that the walk from A to B is going to be peaceful.”
“What we were trying to do was remove the student from the cafeteria because it was not a safe situation and it was a disruptive situation,” Bazos said. “That’s consistent with what we’ve done in the past.”