Drug Sweep Sparks Lawsuits, Investigations
A drug sweep at a South Carolina high school in November has touched off a controversy that persists two months later.
So far, the action has sparked two lawsuits and prompted state and federal investigations. It has drawn sharp criticism from civil rights advocates and raised nationwide concerns about the role of police in schools.
The incident in the 2,700-student Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C., attracted widespread attention in the news media, thanks largely to a video record of the Nov. 5 sweep. The videotape shows officers charging into a hallway, guns drawn, yelling, and subjecting more than 100 students, most of them African-American, to searches for drugs. Some students were put in handcuffs.
School officials said no drugs were found.
The more recent of the lawsuits was filed in federal district court in Charleston, S.C., on Dec. 15 by the New York City-based national American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing 20 students and their parents. That lawsuit contends that school officials and police responded improperly to a school drug problem by using excessive force and violating students' civil liberties. Parents of several students involved in the incident had filed a separate lawsuit Dec. 5 in the same court.
"All the students were treated like suspects," said Graham Boyd, the director of the ACLU's drug-policy litigation project. "The school had no reason to think they had done anything wrong. There's nothing that allows you to use a school like a crack house."
Previous Activity Cited
One grainy, blue-green video captures the scene.
It shows a 30- to 40-second rush as police officers—some with guns drawn, others pointing with their arms and shouting commands—secure the hallway. Students drop to their knees; some have their faces down on the floor, while others are wedged against their lockers.
Police pull the students' backpacks out into the middle of the hall, and then a police dog, bouncing against his handler's side, walks down the line of bags.
The school's principal, George McCrackin, was present during the operation, which was conducted at his request. However, a school district official said the principal did not know police would draw their weapons during the sweep.
The dramatic video has shaped perceptions that obscure the facts of the situation, according to Pam Bailey, a spokeswoman for the 26,800-student Berkeley County, S.C., school system, which includes Stratford High.
"There has been so much emotion and perception in this incident that we have to let the facts rather than perception stand," she said.
Ms. Bailey said that students and teachers had previously reported witnessing drug activity in that particular area of the school, and that police had been monitoring the school's 70 surveillance video cameras for several days.
According to Ms. Bailey, a team of 14 local police officers conducted the drug sweep in an attempt to catch students suspected of dealing drugs.
A majority of the school's students had yet to arrive, and the early-morning search, which began at 6:45 a.m. and lasted approximately 30 minutes, was over before classes began.
Critics of the sweep said that the incident was a clear case of racial profiling. About 20 percent of the school's population is African-American, but nearly 70 percent of the students in the hallway during the drug sweep were African-American.
However, Ms. Bailey insisted that police were only targeting students involved in drug activity and that no racial groups were singled out.
The City of Goose Creek Police Department, which is named in the ACLU lawsuit, would not comment on the incident. Civil liberties advocates argue that there was little, if any, evidence of drug activity in this case. A majority of the students in the hallway, they note, were innocent bystanders.
"The extent of the [drug] problem is questionable," said Darrel Rogers, the national director of Students for Sensible Drug Policies, a Washington-based organization. "In this particular case, the evidence is thin. This was suspicion, not fact. [But] anyone that happened to be in that hallway was arrested, essentially."
Ms. Bailey acknowledged that most of the students were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"We don't want the methods that evolved from this incident to be used again," she said.
What Is Reasonable?
Rick Harvell, the executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers, based in St. Louis, and a former director of security for the 5,000-student Oswego, N.Y., public schools, said that "the question is did [police] violate anyone's civil rights?"
That question is being debated in many circles.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently joined the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in an investigation to determine whether officials with the City of Goose Creek Police Department stepped over the line.
FBI officials were unavailable for comment. An official from the state law-enforcement division would not comment on the case.
Perry Zirkel, a law and education professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said that the primary issue in the Stratford case would be whether the use of guns by police fit the gravity of the situation.
Vol. 23, Issue 16, Page 3Published in Print: January 7, 2004, as Drug Sweep Sparks Lawsuits, Investigations