A federal judge has ruled that two cops who work at a public school in Midland, Texas, can be sued for seizing a 14-year-old from her family's apartment because she was there alone. Despite her pleas, the officers did not let the girl call her parents for hours, nor would they let her pick up the phone when her father called. They also searched the family's home without a warrant.
School Resource Officers Kevin Brunner and Alexandra Weaver do not enjoy blanket qualified immunity, ruled U.S. District Judge David Counts, in a case that began with a mom making painstaking plans for her children's supervision when she had to be out of the country for five days and her husband was deployed overseas.
In 2018, Megan McMurry was a special education teacher at a Midland junior high school, married to Adam McMurry, a soldier in the Mississippi Army National Guard. The family had lived in six countries over the course of 10 years, and her kids were used to independence.
"When my daughter was 12 she'd walk down the streets of Shanghai to get donuts," says McMurry.
When the family moved to Midland, the daughter, Jade, opted for online homeschooling. She was home alone for a good part of each day, which is perfectly legal, so long as a parent is not putting a child in harm's way.
In the meantime, McMurry took her 12-year-old son Connor with her to the junior high across town where she worked. He had perfect attendance.
But when the family learned their dad, overseas already, was being mobilized for another stint in Kuwait, McMurry thought the family should consider moving there to be together. She had a job offer at a Kuwaiti school and wanted to visit it before making her decision.
Her kids didn't want to come on the five-day trip—in part because Connor didn't want to ruin his perfect attendance streak—so McMurry arranged for the kids to be in the care of neighbors, Vanessa and Gabe Vallejos. Jade, the 14-year-old, babysat the Vallejos family's six-year-old for several hours every afternoon, so the families were close.
As for Connor getting to school, McMurry arranged for the school's counselor—another nearby neighbor—to drive him.
On Thursday night, October 25, 2018, she boarded the plane for Kuwait.
On Friday morning, the school counselor realized she wouldn't be able to pick up Connor after all, and asked the school resource officer—Weaver, who also lived nearby—to drive him instead. When Weaver didn't answer her telephone, the counselor arranged for someone else to drive the boy, according to McMurry.
Weaver called Child Protective Services (CPS) to report children left home alone. She also called her supervisor, Brunner, and the two went to the McMurry home for a welfare check on Jade.
This is where things got ugly.
The cops had the apartment building manager knock on the family's door. Jade answered and the cops told her she shouldn't be home alone. Jade started crying and asked to call her dad, McMurry says. But the cops wouldn't allow it. They did allow her to change into warmer clothes, since they were going to take her away for an interrogation. While she was in her room she managed to text her dad, "I'm scared! The police are here."
Meanwhile, Weaver went rifling through the cabinets.
The cops put Jade in the squad car and drove her to the middle school her brother was attending, according to McMurry. Bodycam footage shows her crying and begging the cops to let her call her father, but they refused to do so.
At the school, the cops kept Jade in their custody for several hours as they questioned her, asking things like, "Were you going to have a party?" They pulled Connor out of class and questioned him, too.
Meanwhile, CPS dispatched an investigator to the school. He asked the cops if they had called the parents.
McMurry says that when the cops said no, the CPS investigator was incredulous, since that's the first thing they're supposed to do.
Attorneys for Brunner and Weaver did not respond to requests for comment.
The CPS investigator was dismayed that the cops had told his agency that the children were abandoned and truant, because obviously Connor was at school, and the cops were also aware that Jade was homeschooled. (Believe it or not, Weaver and McMurry had been friends before this.) When Jade explained the arrangements her mom had made for their supervision, and CPS ascertained this was all true, it closed the case then and there.
But the cops did not.
When McMurry returned from Kuwait, she faced two felony charges of child abandonment. She turned herself in and spent 19 hours in jail before being released on bail.
Long story short, almost a year later—she was suspended without pay the entire time— McMurry's case came to trial. Brunner claimed to be on a prearranged vacation. McMurry, eager to get the case heard, allowed the trial to proceed without him.
Her neighbors, the Vallejoses, testified. The CPS investigator and his supervisors testified. The school counselor testified. Connor and Jade testified. When Weaver testified and was asked why she didn't let Jade talk to her dad, she replied she hadn't wanted to worry the man. In fact, here's some of the transcript:
Q: Do you not remember Jade telling you that her dad is trying to call her and you told her not to answer that phone?
A: Now that you've stated that, I do recall that occurring.
Q: So her father is trying to call her when you're taking her from her home to Abell Middle School and you're telling her…not to answer the phone when her father is calling?
A. Correct I didn't want to cause him any undue stress.
The trial took four days. The jury deliberated for five minutes and found McMurry not guilty.
Now McMurry is suing the officers for violating her Fourth and 14th Amendment rights. Her suit alleges that they searched her home without a warrant and seized her daughter illegally. The cops are not supposed to remove children from a home without alerting the parents, unless there is an immediate threat to the children's life and limb. Since the law is so well-established on those protocols that the officers had to have been aware of them, the federal judge has waived their plea for qualified immunity and is allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
This is particularly sweet for McMurry because she knows what actual abandonment looks like.
"My mother was a drug-addicted drug dealer," she says. "I grew up in foster care from the time I was 11. I would be in a two-week shelter, then a 30-day shelter, you know how it goes. I went to 25 different high schools by the time I graduated with a 4.0."
It was her hard-won resilience that got her to adulthood, and resilience is exactly what she and her husband are trying to instill in their kids. That's why she let them stay home without her. She knew they'd be responsible, and she knew this was not something impossible for young people to handle.
Clearly, the apple is not falling far from the tree. In a letter to the circuit court, Jade wrote that she wants everyone "to know what these two officers did to me and my family for no reason."
"My parents have taught me to work hard for anything I want and to self-advocate," wrote Jade. "I may not have known my rights that day, and they definitely didn't inform me either, but I knew what they were doing was wrong."