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Seizure of Summit Discipline Files Ruled Illegal

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School officials in Summit, N.J., last week were sorting through hundreds of student disciplinary records that had been seized by city police early this month during an investigation of drug trafficking in the schools and subsequently returned by court order.

The confiscated records were returned to the district on Feb. 17 after a state judge ruled that the search warrant authorizing police to remove the records was improperly issued. The judge also ordered the empanelment of a special grand jury to investigate the incident. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1984.)

During the next two weeks, district officials will notify the parents of students whose records were confiscated, said Anne Cooper, a spokesman for the district. "We think they should know that the records were in the hands of the police," she said, adding that officials are also tabulating the kinds of infractions that were noted in the student records.

Superior Court Judge Edward W. Beglin ruled that the warrant authorizing the Feb. 9 search, issued by Municipal Court Judge Russel H. Hulsizer prior to the search, was improper for several reasons.

Calling Summit Chief of Police Frank Formichella's application for the warrant "replete with problems," Judge Beglin said the chief had not established "probable cause" that crimes had been committed at the junior high school or the central district office, which had both been targets of the police search.

The search warrant also was not specific enough, Judge Beglin said, and did not spell out clearly, as required by law, which areas were to be searched.

Police detectives used the warrant to search the school superintendent's office, the district's business office, the school nurse's office, and the junior-high-school principal's office, according to Ms. Cooper. Approximately 300 records were taken from the offices of the superintendent and the junior-high-school principal, she said.

The warrant authorized the seizure of the school district's disciplinary records and evidence gathered in disciplinary incidents in which drugs were involved.

Rumors of Drug Use

According to John Sofie, administrative assistant to Summit's police chief, police detectives are in the process of investigating drug trafficking in Summit schools.

Based on reports of several drug-related incidents in the junior high school, police officials became concerned that school officials were not sharing information with the department on criminal activity in the schools, Mr. Sofie said.

Those rumors prompted the investigation, as well as a meeting on Jan. 30 between Mr. Formichella and school administrators to discuss the alleged drug activity, Mr. Sofie said. During the meeting the police chief was denied access to disciplinary records, according to Mr. Sofie.

Richard Fiander, superintendent of Summit schools, said he told Mr. Formichella at the meeting that rumors about drug use running "rampant" in the junior high school were false. He also said that police officers did not ask to see the disciplinary records.

Appeared With Warrant

The earliest indication school officials had that police were interested in the records "was when they showed up at our door with the warrant," Ms. Cooper said.

However, if the police had asked to see the records, Mr. Fiander would have refused, Ms. Cooper said. "The records are strictly confidential," she said, and providing such records to anyone other than school personnel without the permission of parents and students would have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.

The grand jury investigation into the incident will begin March 15, according to John H. Stamler, prosecutor for Union County. Mr. Stamler will not seek criminal indictments in the case, he said, but will ask jury members to make recommendations about how to prevent such incidents in the future.

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