Last year, an off-duty police officer placed a 12-year-old girl in a prolonged, illegal chokehold while breaking up a fight at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, middle school. Now, the girl and her family are suing the officer, alleging that his actions resulted in excessive force and an illegal arrest.
Sean Guetscho, an off-duty Kenosha police officer working as a security guard at a local middle school, unlawfully detained a 12-year-old girl, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Wisconsin’s Eastern District Court. A fight broke out last March. The complaint says the sixth-grader—identified only as Jane Doe—was acting in self-defense after being attacked by another student in the school’s cafeteria. While trying to break up the fight, Guetscho allegedly fell back while holding Doe, hitting his head on a cafeteria table.
According to the complaint, Guetscho believed that the girl caused his downfall, leading him to seek revenge. He “instantly grabbed Jane Doe around her neck and placed her in a prone position on the floor,” putting her knee on the girl’s neck and pushing her face to the floor. The lawsuit also claims that “at various times, Guetscho repositioned himself to increase the amount of pressure he was applying to the back of Jane Doe’s neck with his knees.” Do told Guetshoe that he couldn’t breathe but was ignored.
Eventually, Guetscho handcuffed the girl and arrested her—then urged his colleagues to press charges against the girl. Although Doe was eventually charged with disorderly conduct, the girl’s family lawyer Drew DeViney told CNN that the matter was “resolved” and he was not charged.
The complaint alleges that, due to the strangulation, Doe suffered multiple injuries, including “a traumatic brain injury, cervical strain and repeated headaches.” The incident left her with “emotional trauma and anxiety, including severe emotional distress, which required Jane Doe to seek mental health treatment and counseling and change schools.”
Ultimately, the complaint argues that Guetscho’s actions constituted an unlawful use of excessive force and an unlawful arrest and, therefore, violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights. “Sean Guetscho’s unreasonable and excessive use of force against Jane Doe caused injuries to Jane Doe, including violations of her constitutional rights, loss of liberty, past and future pain,” the lawsuit added, adding that Guetscho “acted” with malice or in reckless disregard of Jane Doe’s federally protected rights.”
The complaint also seeks to hold the local police department accountable for the incident, alleging that it was aware that Guetshoe could become violent. “Field Performance of Guetshaw [at a different police department] was labeled ‘unacceptable’ and was described as ’emotional, panicking or losing their temper’.
“He’s humiliated, he’s hurt. Every day, I have to hear ‘Dad I don’t want to go to school.’ It breaks me because I wasn’t there to help her,” the girl’s father, Jerrell Perez, said at a March news conference. “I would like to see this officer charged because if I or another parent or any adult were to put their knee on the child, that would be abuse.”
It’s unclear whether the lawsuit will succeed, especially given the broad qualified immunity protections that shield police officers from liability in civil rights cases. Regardless of the outcome, however, the case sends a clear message to the Kenosha Police Department—and to any officer who might be inclined to use excessive force when breaking up schoolyard fights.
“It happened at a school,” Deviney said at a March news conference. “So let this be a learning opportunity for those responsible. If you commit an unlawful act of violence against one of our children, the legal consequences will be severe.”