When a fight broke out between two sixth-graders in a Wisconsin school cafeteria, security officer Shawn Guetschow rushed in to break it up.
Video of the incident from bystanders and surveillance cameras shows Guetschow, an off-duty police officer, pull the two students apart. It also shows him pin one of them - a 12-year-old Black girl - to the ground, kneeling on her neck for about 20 seconds.
The incident in Kenosha, Wis., in March - less than two years after the shooting of Jacob Blake in the city sparked large protests against police violence - drew outrage as images of the altercation spread on social media. Guetschow resigned afterward, and parents and activists debated the presence of police officers in Kenosha schools.
Now Guetschow, the city of Kenosha and the Kenosha Unified School District face a federal lawsuit from the 12-year-old’s family. Jerrel Perez, the girl’s father, sued the three parties on Monday, alleging that Guetschow used excessive force against his daughter.
The lawsuit also alleged that the city and school district failed to properly train Guetschow and ignored that Guetschow had a reputation for a short temper from a previous police department.
Sam Hall, an attorney representing Guetschow and KUSD, said in a statement that he would “vigorously defend” the police officer and school district. Hall said that he was advised that the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office would not pursue charges against Guetschow, and that the US attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin reviewed the case and found Guetschow committed no civil rights violations.
The Kenosha city attorney did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday night.
Perez’s lawsuit alleges that as Guetschow attempted to break up the fight, he tripped on the other student’s legs as he held Perez’s daughter’s arm, sending them both to the floor. Once on the ground, Guetschow allegedly held Perez’s daughter face down on the floor by placing his right hand, then his knee, on the back of her neck, which the lawsuit described as an “unlawful chokehold.”
Wisconsin law forbids officers from using chokeholds, defined as any prolonged application of force to the throat or windpipe, except in life-threatening situations or self-defence.
Perez’s daughter did not resist and told Guetschow she could not breathe, the lawsuit alleges. Guetschow allegedly did not issue any commands to Perez’s daughter as he restrained her.
Perez’s daughter suffered a brain injury, cervical strain and recurrent headaches, and she underwent mental health treatment and changed schools following the incident, according to the lawsuit.
Shortly after the incident, Perez compared the actions in the cafeteria to the killing of George Floyd, who died in 2020 after a police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes.
“TELL ME WHATS THE DIFFERENCE,” Perez wrote in a Facebook post above two photos. One showed police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, and the other showed Guetschow doing the same to Perez’s daughter.
After the incident, the Kenosha Police Department said that it would investigate alongside the Kenosha Unified School District, and that Guetschow, who had been with the department for four years, had been permitted to work as a school security guard as a secondary job. The Kenosha Police Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but told the Associated Press that its internal investigation determined that Guetschow hadn’t violated department policy, and that he returned to duty as a police officer on Jan. 31.
Perez’s lawsuit alleges that before Guetschow joined the Kenosha Police Department, he received criticism as an officer in the nearby city of Lake Geneva. In his last year in Lake Geneva, Guetschow was allegedly described as “emotional, panicked or loses their temper” and had his field performance graded as “unacceptable,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit does not cite examples of the alleged behaviour.
Hall said Guetschow used a “trained law enforcement technique” to “gain control” over Perez’s daughter during the altercation, and that he was pushed to the ground and struck his head against a table, suffering a concussion and swelling to his head. Guetschow allegedly requested that charges be filed against Perez’s daughter after the incident, according to the lawsuit.
Perez seeks damages and an order declaring that Guetschow violated his daughter’s civil rights. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.