Zero Tolerance

Mom Faces Wiretapping Charges for Trying to Protect Child from School Bullies

Administrators didn't respond, so she turned to a recording device to get evidence. Now she faces jail.


Sarah Sims

A mom simply trying to find out whether her 9-year-old child was being bullied is facing felony charges for sticking a recording device in her child's backpack.

Sarah Sims of Norfolk, Virginia, is telling the media that her daughter's elementary school, Ocean View Elementary, was not doing anything about her child's mistreatment, and administrators were not responding to her concerns. So she used a recording device to try to document evidence.

The device was found and confiscated. Then, remarkably, weeks later, Sims was charged with using a device to intercept oral communications and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That first charge is actually a felony and could lead Sims to prison time.

Take note: Virginia's recording laws do not require both parties to know and consent to having oral conversations recorded. Only one side needs to know. So if the child was aware of the device, it's a bit unclear why the mother is being charged with violating the law.

It's possible that maybe the recording device picked up other nearby conversations not involving the girl, but we don't know because the device has not been returned and the mother is not able to listen to the contents. Regardless, though, even if the device did pick up other conversations, this is an absurdly harsh way to have responded to what has happened.

The school refuses to comment on what happened, saying they don't discuss "pending legal matters." That's the kind of thing that organizations say when they're a party to a lawsuit, which is not the case here. The school is not responsible for prosecuting the mother and the "pending legal matters" are not theirs. So instead, it looks like the school has decided to facilitate the mother's punishment as an authoritarian response to trying to look after her daughter's safety in a way that the school didn't appreciate and might have ultimately made them look bad.

There are a number of good reasons why a school would have a policy forbidding the use of recording devices. But this went far beyond the enforcement of a policy to trying to get a parent criminally prosecuted. There were many ways for the school to handle this situation and they deliberately made the worst choice.

And that's a good as reason as any as to why parents desperately need better school choice. Fortunately Sims was able to get her hands on a lawyer who was confident enough to take this story to the press, and it's now gotten national attention on CNN. What might have happened to Sims had the media not gotten involved? Would she have felt forced into some sort of plea deal that ended in an admission that she had done something bad and let the school to continue to ignore the situation?

Now that there's media coverage, don't be surprised to see the case get dropped before the January preliminary trial. This case highlights how lack of decent educational competition allows school administrators to treat parents and students poorly and get away with it. The easier it is for parents to take their children somewhere else when the schools are not responsive to problems, the more likely administrators will actually handle problems properly rather than try to punish their way out of it.

Watch an interview with the mom at CNN here.