It was supposed to be just another leg in a long medical journey for Hannah Cohen, a disabled teenager who has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer since she was two years old.
Hannah and her mother, Shirley, were flying home last June after a procedure at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a world-renowned treatment center in Memphis for children with cancer and other rare diseases. For the Cohens, who were headed to their suburban home near Chattanooga, Tennessee, this was supposed to be routine trip, one they have been making for 16 years.
Instead, it turned out to be anything but routine.
The teenager is suing the government, claiming that Transportation Safety Administration officers knocked her to the ground and bloodied her face after a sequined shirt allegedly set off a metal detector during a routing screening in the Memphis airport. Shirley Cohen claims was forced to stand by as her daughter was held down by multiple officers and handcuffed.
Hannah Cohen is a 19-year-old with multiple disabilities. She has suffered from the consequences from extensive radiation therapy and surgery to her treat brain cancer since she was two years old. The treatments have left her deaf in one ear and blind in one eye. She has also suffered partial paralysis, which makes it difficult for her to stand or walk on her own.
She is also easily frightened, and has significant trouble hearing and communicating with others, which may have contributed to the escalation of the incident.
When Hannah Cohen was going through the metal detector, an alarm went off. Her mother told the Guardian that it may have been set off by her shirt, which had an owl embroidered in sequins on it. The security guards then told Hannah that they would need to take her for a further body search.
“My shirt — it had sequins,” Hannah told the Guardian.
Shirley Cohen, who had a boot on her foot due to a broken bone, says she tried to tell the TSA agents to speak clearly and be gentle with her daughter. But then more officers were called to the scene, including airport police.
Officers allegedly grabbed the teen’s arms forcefully. Hannah Cohen still did not understand what was going on — she was clearly in distress.
The guards slammed Hannah Cohen down on the ground, causing her to hit her face. Shirley Cohen was able to get her phone and take a picture of her daughter’s bloodied face before being pushed away.
That was the last time Shirley Cohen was able to see her daughter for 24 hours, until she and Hannah were reunited in the Shelby County jail the next day.
Once Hannah Cohen was brought before a judge, he ordered all charges against her dropped.
The Cohen family later sued the TSA, asking for compensation to cover the cost of hospitalization after her assault. They are also asking for damages not exceeding $100,000 to cover non-physical damages, including pain, embarrassment and emotional injury. The lawsuit also alleges that the TSA discriminated against Cohen because of her disability.
“These people think they are God. They think they can do anything they want,” Shirley Cohen told the Guardian. “It’s time for justice.”