Sarah Sims was in a fix. Her daughter was being bullied at her elementary school in Norfolk, Virginia. What’s more, the school’s administrators apparently weren’t listening to her complaints. The situation would soon spiral out of control, however, and in a way that no one could have predicted.
The bullying that Sims’ daughter had faced was reportedly severe and sustained. While she was still in the third grade, the girl had been kicked in the gut by playground bullies. Sims had even been forced to take her daughter out of school for a time.
Things were made more difficult for Sims by the fact that she had other commitments to attend to. She was enrolled full-time at Norfolk State University in Virginia and she wasn’t in a position to spend time at Ocean View Elementary School getting proof of the bullying that her daughter was suffering. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the time to chase school officials over the issue, either.
And the reported lack of response from the school had apparently only made her daughter’s condition worse. “[My daughter] became very anxious about attending,” Sims explained to CNN. “She felt like she wasn’t protected,” she added.
Given the situation, the girl – who was now in the fourth grade – felt that she didn’t even have her own mother’s full support. Indeed, the mom’s confidence was shaken by the fact that those in charge at Ocean View didn’t seem to believe her daughter’s complaints. “I felt like I kind of let her down a little bit because I wasn’t believing her,” Sims admitted. She also said that she “wanted to be fair” and wondered if there was another side to the story.
Ultimately, Sims realized that she had to do something. Though she was apparently getting no answer from the school, she increasingly believed that everything her daughter had told her was true. “If I’m not getting an answer from [the school], what am I left to do?” she asked local radio station, WAVY.
Sims wanted to obtain objective evidence that the classroom was a safe space and to learn about the environment that her daughter was confronted with at school. So she took matters into her own hands.
In fact, she sent her daughter to school with a digital recorder in her backpack. Unluckily for Sims, though, officials at Ocean View discovered the device and confiscated it. They then reported the discovery to the police. But then things got worse. The police charged Sims with the felony crime of intercepting communications. And because she encouraged her daughter to carry the device in her school bag, they also charged Sims with the misdemeanor of aiding or abetting in the delinquency of a minor.
“I was appalled when I heard these charges,” Sims’ lawyer, Kristin Paulding, told CNN. “I was shocked to see that the school would decide to go to the police department and ultimately charge this mother as opposed to sitting her down and having just a simple conversation.”
Indeed, confronted with these charges, Sims faced a possible sentence of up to five years in prison. Given that she was a single mom whose daughter had apparently been bullied for years, it seemed like a terrifying turn of events. Her court date was set for January 18, 2018. And there was no escaping it.
That wasn’t the thing that most angered Sims, though. “The thing that bothers me the most is that I am yet to get a response from anyone in the administration,” she said. The school wouldn’t explain why they’d gone straight to the police rather than talking to her. All they would say was that recording devices were forbidden and that they weren’t otherwise at liberty to comment on legal proceedings.
Their refusal to explain their position didn’t help public perceptions of the matter, either. Sims was able to explain that she had simply been trying to help her daughter, who wasn’t being helped by the school – and it seemed like she was the victime of a grave injustice. An online petition calling for the charges to be dropped was created via Change.org and it had soon received some 6,000 signatures.
The case also received a lot of attention on Twitter. One user who commented was Hamlet Garcia, a father who was charged in 2011 with sending his child to a school in the wrong district. He tweeted, “Dismiss all charges against #SarahSims for protecting her daughter from [a] bully.”
The Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union also got involved. The organization urged its followers on Twitter to phone the office of the Norfolk prosecutor, Greg Underwood, and ask him to drop the charges against Sims. Meanwhile, other users argued that Sims would never have been charged with the alleged crimes if she had been white.
Making matters more contentious was the fact that the charges arguably shouldn’t have been filed. Virginia is a one-party consent state, meaning that only one of the parties involved in a conversation has to give their consent to being recorded. Given that Sims’ daughter had knowingly carried the audio device, there was a good case that no crime had even been committed.
Still, the Norfolk Commonwealth Attorney’s office claimed that it had enough evidence to support the charges brought against Sims. It therefore looked as though the mother was set for her date with a judge. Exasperated, she complained on local radio, “Felony charges and a misdemeanor when I’m trying to look out for my kid. What do you do?”
However, after only a few weeks, the attorney dropped the charges against Sims. “After reviewing the facts and circumstances specific to this case, the office is exercising prosecutorial discretion to not pursue the prosecution of this case” spokesperson Amanda Howie said. Sims was overjoyed by the decision.
“I can breathe,” Sims told WAVY. “This boulder I’ve had on my chest for weeks was just alleviated.” Given that Sims’ arrest had already attracted a significant public backlash, many believed that district officials simply wanted to avoid further negative publicity.
With the closure of the legal proceedings, the school district was finally able to comment on the case and on the alleged bullying of Sims’ daughter. The school district’s spokesperson told CNN that it takes “any accusation of bullying, whether by a student or staff member, very seriously.” The spokesperson also claimed that in every reported case of bullying, a “thorough investigation is performed.”
It remains to be seen how Sims’ daughter will fare, however. The fourth-grader had been moved to another class at Ocean View but, according to Sims, she had tried to stay positive. Going ahead, let’s hope that things look up for both mother and daughter.