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She sent her child to school with a recorder to catch bullies - and was charged with a felony

By: Kristine Phillips, The Washington Post
November 28, 2017 Updated: November 28, 2017 at 12:58 pm
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Sarah Sims. Screen shot from an interview with WAVY.

A Virginia mother said she was charged with a felony after she sent her daughter to school with an audio recorder in her backpack to see if the child was being bullied at school.

Sarah Sims told CNN that she had repeatedly contacted officials at Oceanview Elementary School in Norfolk about concerns that her 9-year-old was being bullied, not only by her classmates, but also by her teacher. So in September, she said, she gave her fourth-grader a recorder, believing that capturing some evidence herself was her only choice.

"I was hoping to get a good idea for the environment of the classroom . . . I thought it would be a good idea to do it on my own," Sims told CNN's Don Lemon Monday.

But officials at Oceanview Elementary School in Norfolk found the device and confiscated it, Sims said.

Sims, 47, was later charged with interception, disclosure of wire, electronic or oral communications, a Class 6 felony, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a Class 1 misdemeanor, according to a brief statement from the Norfolk Police Department.

Class 6 felony in Virginia is punishable by up to five years in prison. A Class 1 misdemeanor carries a punishment of up to a year in jail.

Sims's lawyer, Kristin Paulding, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, but she told CNN the charges against are excessive.

"I was appalled when I heard these charges. I've been practicing criminal law for 10 years, and 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 about what were her concerns and how could the school alleviate those concerns," Paulding said.

She added that Sims' daughter may have been bullied not only by her classmates, but by her teacher too.

"Sarah had a concern that her daughter's teacher may have actually been speaking inappropriately to her," Paulding told CNN.

Thomas Shattuck, an investigator for Paulding's law firm in Virginia Beach, said that someone, presumably the teacher, found the recorder on the child's desk and confiscated it. School officials then called the city attorney's office, which then called the police department. A police officer later interviewed the child without Sims' knowledge.

Shattuck said that was troubling.

"Nine years old is awfully young for a detective to question a child without the mother's consent, especially if the mother is the target of the investigation," Shattuck told The Washington Post. "You're essentially asking the daughter to testify against her mother."

Shattuck also said they have yet to find out what's in the recorder and suspect it may have captured something important.

"Our concern is that they heard the recording and called the city attorney's office," he said. "If it was just a blank recording, why call the city attorney's office? We're very curious with what's in the recording."

Shattuck acknowledged that the recorder was against school policy, but said it does not amount to a felony.

Norfolk Public Schools spokeswoman Khalilah LeGrand said the district can't comment on any pending legal matters and referred further questions to the Norfolk Police Department.

The police department said in its brief statement that Sims was charged on Nov. 6 as a result of an investigation that began on Sept. 29 and that it will have no further comment. A spokesman said Sims was given a bond and released.

Paulding said Sims is scheduled for her first court appearance in January. She said she's hoping that by drawing attention to the case, prosecutors would decide to drop the charges before that hearing.

Amanda Howie, spokeswoman for the Office of the Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney, did not immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.

Virginia as well as 37 other states and the District of Columbia have one-party consent laws, which allow individuals to record phone calls and conversations they're a part of or when one party consents. In 11 other states, every party to a phone call or conversation should consent to a recording.

Shattuck said he believes Virginia's one-party consent law applies to the case.

"The 9-year-old was aware of the recording device . . . She's the one party," he said.

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