Detroit 'Sweep' Searches Challenged In First Use of T.L.O. Standard
An important component of Detroit's three-month-old school-security initiative could be threatened by a lawsuit planned in response to a surprise "sweep search" of students at a city high school late last month.
According to lawyers familiar with the case, the suit to be filed in federal district court will allege that the school district's policy of conducting unannounced mass searches for weapons and drugs violates students' rights under the Fourth Amendment.
The case appears to be the first in the nation in which a lower federal court will be asked to interpret and apply the standard for student searches outlined earlier this year in a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning a New Jersey school.
The Detroit school district's search policy, which reportedly enjoys widespread support among the city's students and citizens, was announced by Mayor Coleman A. Young at a citywide summit meeting on crime last November. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1985.)
The unannounced shakedown at Western High School on Feb. 21--which resulted in the confiscation of 13 knives and a small quantity of drugs--was the fourth of its kind since Mayor Young announced a series of initiatives to combat a wave of crimes involving young people. A spokesman for the city's school board said last week that the district does not plan to abandon its policy of conducting unannounced searches unless it is specifically ordered to do so.
'Reasonable Grounds' Standard
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in a widely publicized case that school officials may search students only when there are "reasonable grounds for suspecting" that the search will turn up evidence of a violation of the law or school rules.
The Court. in New Jersey v. T.L.O., also stated that such searches must not be "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction." (See Education Week,3Jan. 23, 1985.) Such a standard, it said, would ensure that "the interests of students will be invaded no more than is necessary to achieve the legitimate end of preserving order in the schools."
According to Richard Levy, a spokesman for the Detroit school board, students in selected schools are required upon entering the building to walk single-file through either hand-held or stationary metal detectors and, in some cases, past pairs of police dogs trained to detect drugs. Students possessing contraband items are taken to police headquarters and released only into parents' custody.
David Wineman, an assistant to the director of the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has agreed to provide legal aid to the parent filing the lawsuit, added that school security officers conducting the search at Western also randomly selected students for "patdown" searches after they had passed through the metal detectors. In some cases, male officers patted down female students, Mr. Wineman alleged.
The aclu official also alleged that some students--notably, those wearing Reserve Officers Training Corp uniforms--were allowed to enter the school building without being searched.
Obeying Parent's Order
According to Mr. Wineman, the parent filing the lawsuit had ordered her children not to submit to a search if a shakedown occurred at their school. On the day of the incident, the children declined to be searched and requested permission to call their mother.
The children, who were detained in the principal's office, were allowed to call home, Mr. Wineman continued. When their mother arrived to complain, she was detained by school security officers and was ordered to produce identification before being allowed to take her children home.
"There is no justification for mass, dragnet-type searches in T.L.O.," said Mr. Wineman. "The search was below the standard set by the Court to begin with because there was no probable or reasonable cause to search any of these individuals. If you begin with that, it follows that [this search] was totally bereft of constitutional protections."
The aclu official added that he believes the court will rule in the parent's favor because "in this case we go beyond metal detectors to patdowns."
"Within the patdown pattern, we have instances of searches done by males on females," he said. "And within this mass design, some individuals are not subjected to searches, which brings the element of arbitrariness into the picture as well. Here we have a degree of intrusiveness which is alarming and we believe it needs to be addressed."
Mr. Levy, the school board's spokesman, said district officials are confident that the manner in which the search was conducted "conforms to the guidelines set forth in T.L.O."
He added that the number of incidents in schools involving guns and knives has dropped dramatically since the search policy was announced.
"In terms of security-officer training, we have sought the counsel and expertise of school lawyers," Mr. Levy said. "We also have the cooperation of our juvenile-justice authorities. If [the policy] didn't conform, I think we would have heard from the bench."
Mr. Levy also claimed that in late January aclu representatives presented school officials with a position paper indicating that they believed the search policy might not be legal. At that time, he said, school officials "with some hesitancy invited them to act as observers" at a search in the future, but the offer was declined. Mr. Wineman of the aclu, however, claimed that no such offer was ever made.
Mr. Levy also faulted the parent for not having informed school administrators in advance of her objection to the search policy. "If that had happened, I think she would have been accommodated," he said.
"The point is, there is not a hue and cry in the community," he continued. "One person's action does not become a class action."