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In Detroit, Metal-Detector Searches Hit Legal Snags

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Detroit school officials, entangled in court proceedings over their periodic use of metal detectors to screen students for weapons, have agreed to halt the searches temporarily.

The searches, begun last year on a random and periodic basis, were to have been broadened in 1986 to include daily searches at all high schools. The school board voted in November to approve the new plan and order more metal detectors. (See Education Week, Dec. 11, 1985.)

But in an unexpected twist, the federal district judge presiding in Detroit's long-running school-desegregation lawsuit last month linked that suit with a legal challenge to the mass-search policy.

In consultations with U.S. District Judge Avery Cohn, school officials agreed to halt the controversial search program until next week, when the judge is scheduled to resume hearings in both cases.

The weapons-search suit is one of the first in which a federal court is expected to interpret and apply the standards set down last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. That ruling specified that school officials may search students only when they have "reasonable grounds for suspecting" that the search will turn up evidence of a violation of the law or school rules.

During the first hearings on the search suit last month, Judge Cohn--acting in his capacity as presiding judge in the desegregation suit--nullified the district's policy permitting random metal-detector searches because it was not reviewed by the district court, as required by a federal appellate ruling.

Although Judge Cohn issued no ruling on the legality of the random searches, he suggested during the hearings that they were of "dubious constitutionality," according to lawyers for both sides.

The Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the policy on behalf of a student, who claims that an unannounced search violated her privacy rights.

Lynn Metty, a lawyer for the Detroit Board of Education, said the district requested a recess in the metal-detector case after Judge Cohn nullified the search policy in the desegregation case.

The policy, a September 1985 amendment to the district's student code of conduct, provided a legal basis for police and school security officers to conduct random, unannounced, metal-detector searches in an effort to prevent students from carrying weapons into schools.

Judge Cohn struck down the amendment--restoring the original wording adopted by the board in August 1984--because it was approved without judicial review during a period when jurisdiction over the code of student conduct was unsettled, pending an appeal in a higher court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in September that the panel of judges overseeing the desegregation case had improperly ended its jurisdiction over the student-conduct code. As a result of that ruling, Judge Cohn was appointed to supervise the district's code of student conduct until he completes hearings on whether further court oversight is necessary.

In light of Judge Cohn's ruling in the desegregation case, district officials are reconsidering their options in the metal-detector case, according to Ms. Metty.

School officials must decide whether an amendment to the student code of conduct is necessary to conduct the searches, Ms. Metty said. The district conducted the searches without a written policy statement from December 1984 until last September, when the board approved the recently voided amendment, she noted.

The district may request Judge Cohn's permission to amend the code, she said, perhaps even prior to his ruling on the legality of theches. Or, she said, the district may abandon the idea of conducting the searches altogether. At a school-board meeting following last month's court hearings, she added, members agreed to put the order for more metal detectors on hold.

"There's nothing wrong with the district keeping [the metal detectors]" said Howard Simon, president of the local aclu chapter. "But the only people who should be required to go through them are those who are suspected by school officials of carrying a weapon."

Opponents of the search policy say evidence revealed during last month's hearing will make it difficult for the school board to get a ruling in its favor.

Arthur Jefferson, superintendent of Detroit schools, testified that he "could not remember" who first proposed the searches, according to lawyers for both sides in the case.

Frank Blount, director of security for the district, said he had not recommended the searches because he thought they would lead to a "prison-like atmosphere" in the schools, according to lawyers at the hearing.

Mr. Blount also testified that he had not yet seen written search guidelines that were drawn up six weeks ago at the recommendation of the court, they said.

Since the metal detectors were first introduced, only six guns have been found during random searches of more than 40,000 students, according to statistics compiled by the district. During the same period, 75 guns were confiscated using the district's normal security procedures, said Deborah Gordon, the aclu's lawyer in the case.

She said the testimony also revealed that the district had not brought in outside consultants and had not consulted with its legal department prior to implementing the search policy.

"I think the district sees there is no way to win this case," said Ms. Gordon. "The testimony made it clear that this is kind of a chaotic situation," she said, "and that if they started enforcing their own disciplinary rules, they wouldn't need the searches."

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