Police Seizure of Student Discipline Records Provokes Outcry
School officials and parents in Summit, N.J, an affluent suburb of Newark, have reacted with anger and legal countermoves to the "unprecedented" confiscation by local police of student discipline records from central administration offices and the principal's office of the district's one junior high school.
According to Anne Cooper, a spokesman for the Summit School District, the police who presented school officials with a search warrant on Feb. 9 were looking for information on students who had been suspended from the school district for drug-related incidents.
"Four plain-clothes policemen came in the front door and went straight to the the superintendent's office," Ms. Cooper said. The police officers spent two hours going through the suspension records in the office of Superintendent of Schools Richard Fiander. The officers searched in files from as far back as 1975 and removed an unknown number of the files, all of which contained information on students who had been suspended for drug-related infractions, Ms. Cooper said.
The search of the junior high school "was quite another scene," Ms. Cooper said. There, three officers arrived and removed all the school's disciplinary files for the last eight years. They took hundreds of files, Ms. Cooper said, that included information on "everything from snowball fights to more serious incidents."
Based on language in the warrant that authorized the search, school authorities speculate that the police department may be investigating drug activity in the 2,900-student school district, but according Ms. Cooper, the motive behind what she characterized as an "unprecedented'' search and seizure remains a mystery.
At the time of the search, Mr. Fiander said, he immediately called the school district's lawyer, Steven Hoskins, and within 24 hours, the lawyer filed an emergency motion seeking the return of the students' records.
On Feb. 10, Superior Court Judge Edward W. Beglin Jr. ordered police to turn the records and related materials over to the court to be held until a judgment regarding the legality of the search is made.
Records on 'Crimes'
The search warrant police officers produced for Mr. Fiander and the principal of Summit Junior High School authorized the seizure of "all records pertaining to any crimes committed in the Summit Junior High School by students and any records of disciplinary actions taken against these students."
The warrant also authorized the seizure of "evidence as a result of these crimes, such as narcotics and alcoholic beverages."
The police department's action was "absolutely unconstitutional," said John Stamler, prosecutor for Union County, who is in the process of investigating the search.
Mr. Stamler said the search warrant issued by Municipal Court Judge Russel H. Hulsizer was "far too broad" and did not list the specific documents sought, as required by law. It also apparently authorized only a search of the school district's administrative offices, not of the office of the junior-high-school principal.
"I am satisfied that serious questions affecting the integrity of the law-enforcement process have been raised," Mr. Stamler said.
Based on the specific mention of drugs in the search warrant and on ''rumors," Mr. Stamler speculated last week that the police department may be investigating drug use in the city's schools at the request of city officials.
"There has been information circulated in and around Summit that there may have been undue influ-ence placed upon the police by one or more public officials to pursue the application for a search warrant and that public officials other than the police may have had access to the school records," Mr. Stamler said.
Police Chief Frank Formichella and Robert J. Harlaub, the mayor of Summit, last week declined to comment on the search.
Mr. Stamler has recommended to Judge Beglin that a special grand jury be appointed to investigate the matter.
At a hearing before Judge Beglin last Friday, lawyers for the district were scheduled to file a formal motion seeking the return of the students' files. Judge Beglin was expected to make a decision on the legality of the search warrant at that time.
Since the records were seized, the school district has received hundreds of phone calls from parents saying they are worried about how the disciplinary records will be used by city police, said Ms. Cooper, the district spokesman. "We are very concerned about the rights of the students," she added.
Last week, the Summit Congress of Parents and Teachers invited community members to a meeting of the group's Presidents Council to air their concerns about the search.
School officials, including Mr. Hoskins, were on hand to answer questions from parents, who are "very upset about what's happened," said Margaret Taylor, president of the Summit Junior High School pta
According to officials of national education groups, the incident in Summit is an uncommon one.
"It seems to me that it is highly unusual," said Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, "and if I were a school admini-strator in that district, I would be very alarmed."
"I don't know of any similar incidents," said Ivan Gluckman, counsel to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
The issue of police coming into schools does arise fairly often, Mr. Gluckman said, but the incidents usually have to do with whether or not police can interrogate students at school or arrest them at school, he said.
Removing school records does require a search warrant, Mr. Gluckman said, because the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 otherwise requires parents and students to give their permission before school records are released.