Federal lawsuit filed over Kenosha police officer, who put knee on 12-year-old's neck at school

Alleged unlawful chokehold took place at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin

ByOmar Jimenez, Elizabeth Wolfe and Joe Sutton, CNN, CNNWire
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Off-duty cop accused of putting knee on student's neck during fight
Kenosha, Wisconsin police and a school district are investigating after a lunchtime fight between middle school students.

KENOSHA, Wis. -- A father and his middle-school-aged daughter have filed a federal lawsuit against a former school security guard in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after he put his knee on the child's neck while trying to break up a cafeteria fight last year.

The security guard, Shawn Guetschow, also was a Kenosha police officer but was not on police duty at the time of the incident at Kenosha's Lincoln Middle School on March 4, officials have said.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in US District Court, alleges Guetschow used excessive force against the girl -- identified only as Jane Doe -- while he was trying to arrest her after the fight, and that putting his knee on her neck helped constitute an unlawful chokehold. The lawsuit also names the school district and city of Kenosha as defendants, alleging they failed to properly train or supervise Guetschow while he was employed as a security guard.

Surveillance video released by the school district last year shows the guard attempting to break up a fight between two students. He is either struck or falls backward while holding on to one of the students, which the lawsuit identifies as Jane Doe. The guard appears to hit his head on a nearby table. Shortly after, the guard can be seen on top of the student, appearing to push her head onto the floor with one hand while holding his knee to her neck for about 25 seconds.

Eventually, the girl is handcuffed and taken away, the video shows.

Guetschow was "pushed to the ground" and struck his head on a table as he fell, his attorney said Monday. The lawsuit, however, asserts that the guard tripped, and that the girl did not push him or cause him to fall.

The girl, a 12-year-old sixth grade student at the time, was charged with disorderly conduct, but the case was later "resolved" and she was not convicted, according to her family's attorney, Drew DeVinney.

The student changed schools and received mental health treatment as a result of the "emotional distress, mental trauma, and anxiety" she felt after the arrest, the lawsuit says. She has also been treated for traumatic brain injury, cervical strain and recurrent headaches as a result of the incident, it says.

After video of the incident spread on social media, Guetschow resigned that month from his part-time security guard role with the Kenosha Unified School District. CNN has asked Kenosha police about his employment status with their department, but has not heard back.

The suit alleges the city didn't provide Guetschow "with any training regarding security, policing and/or supervision of children and students." It also accuses the school district of not training him or requiring any training for the position.

Guetschow had a reputation for having a short temper, which the school district and the city were aware of, the suit alleges.

RELATED: Off-duty Kenosha officer accused of putting knee on 12-year-old girl's neck during lunchroom fight

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages against Guetschow and monetary damages against all three defendants for an amount that would be determined during trial.

Guetschow "continues to recover from injuries" he sustained on March 4, according to his attorney Sam Hall, who also is representing the school district. Guetschow "suffered a concussion, significant swelling and a contusion of the head during this incident," Hall said in a news release.

Hall said he was informed last week that the Milwaukee County district attorney's office will not pursue charges against Guetschow.

CNN has reached out to prosecutors' offices in Milwaukee and Kenosha counties for comment and clarification on why Milwaukee County prosecutors were considering the case.

The guard's position on the girl drew comparisons from Kenosha police to the position of the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in 2020. Noting "the visual similarities to George Floyd," a Kenosha Police Department spokesman said in April that interim Chief Eric Larsen asked federal investigators to look into the case.

CNN sought comment Monday from the US attorney's office for the eastern district of Wisconsin about the disposition of any federal investigation but did not immediately hear back.

District prohibits restraining students' necks

The Kenosha Unified School District has a policy that permits physical restraint of a student when their actions are "a clear, present and imminent risk to the physical safety of the student or to others."

However, the policy prohibits any restraint techniques that "place pressure or weight on the student's neck or throat, on an artery, or on the back of the student's head or neck" or obstructs students' breathing. It also bans maneuvers that place students in a prone "chest down, back up" position.

The lawsuit against Guetschow accuses him of placing the student in the prone position and failing to give her instructions, and says the girl did not resist arrest.

"A reasonable officer in Guetschow's position would not have believed himself to be in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm" or "believed that the use of a chokehold was reasonable and necessary," the lawsuit says.

According to the suit, the girl communicated to the guard that she was unable to breathe while he was positioned on top of her.

Hall, Guetschow's attorney, said in the news release that officers are in Kenosha schools "because it is the district's highest priority to provide a safe and secure learning environment for its students and staff," adding, "We will vigorously defend KUSD and Officer Guetschow in this action."

The video in the player above is from an earlier report.

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