A Virginia mother is facing a felony charge after trying to help her 9-year-old daughter who complained of being bullied in school.
Sarah Sims of Norfolk, Va., placed a digital audio recorder in her daughter’s backpack in late September in hopes of capturing audio from the fourth-grader’s classroom. Ocean View Elementary School officials confiscated the device after finding it.
Now, the 47-year-old mother faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Sims, a student at Norfolk State University in Virginia, took matters into her own hands.
“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 told CNN on Monday.
This isn’t the first time her daughter has faced bullying in school, Sims said.
In third grade, her daughter “had been kicked in her stomach and hit with a jump rope on the playground,” the mom said.
She claims the school did not notify her then.
“(My daughter) became very anxious about attending,” Sims told CNN. “I removed her from the school because she was refusing to go. She felt like she wasn’t protected.”
Sims said she called and emailed school officials this school year, but none of the queries were answered or calls returned.
The device “was a way to make sure the classroom was a safe place,” Sims’lawyer, Kristin Paulding, told CNN.
Sims' daughter placed the device in her desk to record the school day. Sims and her lawyer were unable to hear anything the recorder picked up because it was confiscated.
Earlier this month, Norfolk police charged Sims with intercepting wire, electronic or oral communications — a felony — in addition to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, based on the September confiscation of the device, according to CNN.
“The next thing I know I’m a felon. Felony charges and a misdemeanor when I’m trying to look out for my kid,” Sims told WAVY-TV.
Sims and her lawyer said the charges caught them by surprise.
“I was appalled when I heard these charges,” 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 have just a simple conversation about what were her concerns and how could the school alleviate those concerns.”
School officials still have not reached out to her about her daughter, whose name she would like to keep private because of the bullying.
Virginia is a one-party consent state, according to Digital Media Law.
That means “you may record a conversation or phone call if you are a party to the conversation or you get permission from one party to the conversation in advance.” What's is not immediately clear is whether Sims' 9-year-old daughter can legally be that one party who gives consent.
Twenty years ago during the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, Linda Tripp, then of Columbia, Md., faced similar charges because she had not received permission from Lewinsky to record their phone calls. Maryland requires the consent of all parties in a conversation before it can be legally recorded.
Norfolk police declined to comment on Sims' case.
“We are unable to comment on any pending legal matters,” Norfolk Public Schools' spokeswoman, Khalilah LeGrand, said in email to CNN. The school district added that recording devices are banned in elementary schools.
Sims’ daughter is now in a different class at the same school.
Her mother is due in court Jan. 18.
A change.org petition calling for Sims' charges to be dropped has garnered more than 700 signatures.