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Student Possession of Beepers Is Tied To Drug Trafficking in Tennessee Bill

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The Tennessee House is considering a bill, already approved by a wide Senate margin, that would make unauthorized possession of an electronic paging device by a student clear-cut evidence of drug trafficking.

The bill's House sponsor predicted last week that the measure would clear his chamber easily in the wake of the Senate's 27-to-6 vote, which amended an existing law that prohibits student possession of the devices.

Backers of the measure argue that it would give school and law-enforcement officials a powerful new weapon in the war against drugs. Civil-rights advocates and some legislators, however, question whether it would violate students' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Like Tennessee, dozens of school districts nationwide and the state of Michigan have banned student possession of "beepers" amid evidence that teenagers have been using them to conduct drug transactions.

The Tennessee bill would go one step further by permitting school and police officials to assume automatically that students with pagers are involved in drug dealing.

School officials, for example, would be granted blanket authority to search the lockers of students caught with the devices on or near school property.

In addition, police could hold such students in jail for up to 24 hours, and prosecutors could cite a student's possession of a beeper in subsequent juvenile-delinquency proceedings.

The bill would also set a uniform, statewide enforcement policy on beepers in schools. Under the current law, local school officials are permitted to develop their own regulations.

Stronger Law Sought

The bill's author, Senator Curtis S. Person Jr., a Memphis Republican, said he developed it in cooperation with his city's police department because he felt a stronger law was need to combat the state's burgeoning drug trade.

As Chief Referee for the Memphis Juvenile Court, Mr. Person said he had watched drug-related offenses among juveniles increase by 383 percent since 1986.

"I've seen it firsthand," he said. "The drug dealers are putting the young people out on the street corners to sell crack."

Possession of beepers by students, he added, is "very strong evidence that they're dealing in drugs."

Mr. Person said students who needed pagers for legitimate reasons would be protected because the bill would allow them to carry the devices with their principal's permission.

Too Far-Reaching?

But critics of the bill say it may be too far-reaching and could infringe on the rights of innocent students.

Barry Friedman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said his group "supports vigorously the need for school officials to conduct school in an orderly fashion and to prevent drug dealing and drug usage in the school."

But, he added, "they have to do that consistent with the Constitution."

Mr. Friedman said that although it may be constitutional for officials to bar students from possessing beepers, "I don't believe it is appropriate or constitutional to search a student's locker or apply a presumption of guilt regarding drug offenses simply because a student has a beeper."

Senators who voted against the measure raised similar concerns.

"If you make this a law, the student has to hire an attorney to overcome the assumption of guilt," said Senator Edward Davis, a Memphis Democrat. "We say to the student, 'Regardless of whether you have diabetes or whatever, it's presumed you are guilty of dealing crack."'

Senator Stephen I. Cohen, also of Memphis, said he voted against the bill because he questioned the constitutionality of its provision regarding students who carry beepers on property adjacent to schools.

"I don't think there's any rational basis to give a school official jurisdiction over people who are off the property," he said.

Despite such concerns, a House subcommittee passed the bill without amendment last week, according to its sponsor in that chamber, Representative Guy A. Cain of Shelel10lby County. Mr. Cain said he was confident the bill would easily gain House approval.

State education officials, meanwhile, have adopted a neutral position on the measure.

Robert K. Sharp, legal counsel for the Tennessee Department of Education, said his agency had not taken a stance on the bill because it would not be directly involved in its enforcement.

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