Sims initially was charged with a felony -- intercepting communications
Prosecutor say evidence supported the charges, but they're exercising discretion
Virginia prosecutors said Wednesday they had dropped all charges against a mother who was accused of illegally recording audio from her daughter’s classroom – an action she said was meant to help her determine whether the child was being bullied.
Sarah Sims, 47, of Norfolk, had been charged this month with a felony – intercepting wire, electronic or oral communications – and with a misdemeanor after her daughter’s elementary school told police it confiscated a digital audio recorder in the girl’s desk in September.
Sims could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison had she been convicted of the felony.
There was enough evidence to support the charges, which included a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, commonwealth attorney’s office spokeswoman Amanda Howie said.
“However, after reviewing the facts and circumstances specific to this case, the office is exercising prosecutorial discretion to not pursue the prosecution of this case,” Howie said.
The decision to drop the charges comes two days after Sims explained her side of the story on “CNN Tonight.”
‘I was appalled when I heard these charges’
On Monday, Sims told CNN’s Don Lemon that she sent her daughter, a fourth-grader, to school with a digital audio recorder in her backpack in September, hoping to capture audio from class, because the girl had complained she was being bullied.
Before the sent the recorder, Sims said, she reached out to administrators at Ocean View Elementary School to talk about the girl’s complaints.
Sims, who herself is a student at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, said she received no response, so she decided to investigate on her own.
“I’m a full-time student, so I don’t always get the opportunity to be on the premises, and I thought that this would be a good way for me to learn the environment,” Sims, 47, told CNN’s Don Lemon on Monday.
She sent her daughter to school with a digital audio recorder in her backpack, hoping to capture audio from the classroom. School officials found out and confiscated the device, which had been in her daughter’s desk recording the school day.
An arrest warrant was issued November 1, and after she turned herself in, she was arraigned in court on November 8. She posted bond, and a court date was set for January.
“I was appalled when I heard these charges,” Sims’ attorney Kristin Paulding said. “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 the recording device “was a way to make sure that that classroom was a safe place” for the child. Because it was confiscated, Paulding said she doesn’t know what – if anything – the recorder caught.
CNN reached out to Norfolk police on Monday but authorities declined to comment on the case. Police have not released a criminal complaint.
After the charges were dropped Wednesday, Norfolk Public Schools spokeswoman Khalilah LeGrand said the district “had a responsibility to fully investigate the alleged incident, and as such, a legal review was requested from” the the Norfolk city attorney’s office, which serves as the district’s legal counsel.
After review of the incident, counsel forwarded the matter to the Norfolk Police Department for investigation,” LeGrand said in a written statement. “That investigation then resulted in criminal charges against Sarah Sims.
“As the location of the offense was one of our schools, NPS had a duty to fully cooperate with authorities. This included not commenting on a pending legal matter, as is customary in all school districts.”
Virginia is a one-party consent state, meaning it is legal for someone to record others when the person recording is involved in the conversation or when one of the parties in the conversation has given prior consent.
“We are unable to comment on any pending legal matters,” school district spokeswoman Khalilah LeGrand said in an email.
It wasn’t the first time her daughter had been bullied at the school, Sims said.
In third grade, her daughter “had been kicked in her stomach and hit with a jump rope on the playground,” Sims said, adding that the school didn’t notify her then.
“She became very anxious about attending,” Sims said. “I removed her from the school because she was refusing to go. She felt like she wasn’t protected.”
Sims said her daughter tried to remain positive when she faced bullying again this school year.
“I did not want to just side with my child. I wanted to be fair,” Sims said.
When her daughter complained, Sims tried to encourage her at first.
“I felt like I kind of let her down a little bit because I wasn’t believing her,” Sims said.
Sims’ daughter still attends the school but is now is a different class.
LeGrand, the school district spokeswoman, said NPS takes “any accusation of bullying, whether by a student or staff member, very seriously.”
“In every instance, a thorough investigation is performed. In addition, school and district administrators always work closely with parents and students to quickly address concerns and offer accommodations when necessary,” she said. “It is NPS’ practice to handle parent complaints internally.”
CNN’s Aaron Cooper and Chris Boyette contributed to this report.