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Stratford Students File Suit 


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Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Author: Tony Bartelme Of The Post and Courier Staff 
Published: Saturday, December 6, 2003 
Copyright: 2003 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Contact: [email protected]

Constitutional rights at issue in action brought by high-profile trial lawyers.

In a federal class action lawsuit filed Friday, 18 Stratford High School students allege that a Goose Creek police officer pointed a gun at the back of a student's head, that officers waved guns in students' faces and that they used other illegal search and seizure tactics in last month's drug sweep at the school.

Filed in U.S. District Court and coordinated by a group of prominent local trial lawyers, the lawsuit is the first civil action to emerge from the controversial drug search. It frames the debate as a struggle over students' constitutional rights.

The 23-page complaint begins with the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons ... papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated."

It then outlines how officers burst into the school's hallway Nov. 5 with their guns drawn. It alleges that an officer pointed his gun at the back of one student's head and that, because of the commotion, students feared someone had been shot. Students also allege they were frightened by the department's drug-sniffing dog, which barked excitedly and appeared unruly. No drugs were found during the sweep.

"This is an open-and-shut case of excessive police force on innocent children," said Ron Motley, lead attorney for the students and their parents. "This made us a laughing stock all over the United States, and it can't be tolerated."

Defendants in the lawsuit include Stratford Principal George C. McCrackin, Berkeley County School District officials, the city of Goose Creek and members of the Goose Creek Police Department. 

The complaint seeks an injunction preventing police and school leaders from doing similar kinds of searches in the future and an unspecified amount of monetary damages.

McCrackin referred questions to Berkeley County school officials, who did not return phone calls. Goose Creek officials also declined to discuss the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is by no means the first to discuss police searches in schools.

An often-cited U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a New Jersey case found that school officials can search a student if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that wrongdoing has occurred. The Stratford lawsuit alleges that Goose Creek police and school officials didn't have "reasonable suspicion" to search the more than 100 students in the hall that morning.

The lawsuit also alleges that by restraining students and forcing them to the floor, police assaulted and falsely arrested them.

Though Goose Creek officials aren't talking about the sweep now, officers defended their tactics immediately after the raid, saying they had information that students were dealing drugs in the hallway. A police report said that two days before the raid, a student confessed to school administrators that he had bought marijuana in the hallway Oct. 31.

Based on this and other information, school officials made plans to sweep through the hallway the morning of Nov. 5.

In the lawsuit, several students describe how they experienced the raid:

-- Maurice Harris, 14, a ninth-grader, said he was standing in the hallway near a stairwell when he heard a loud boom. "He thought someone had been shot when he saw from all directions swarming uniformed police officers, some with handguns drawn," the lawsuit says. "One police officer ran up to him aggressively and pointed his handgun at Maurice, and Maurice can still see the end of the barrel looking at him in the face."

-- Justin Lewis, 16, a senior, said he was sitting at a table in the cafeteria when school officials and police bound his hands behind his back and "paraded them past the other students in the cafeteria to the hallway."

-- DeJohn McKelvey, 16, a junior, said he was sitting next to the stairwell and reviewing notes for class when he heard a loud boom. He said an officer pointed a gun in his face and pushed him from behind to the ground. 

-- Danielle Fludd, 15, a sophomore, said her mother dropped her off at school at about 7 a.m., and when she walked into the hallway where the sweep was taking place, an officer pointed a gun at her and ordered her to the floor.

-- Michael Boyd, 15, a freshman, said that after hearing a loud boom, officers came "from all different directions" and ordered him to the floor. A police officer with a large Czechoslovakian shepherd passed a few feet away. "Michael was scared of the dog that appeared to be unresponsive to commands," the lawsuit says.

During Friday's news conference, Ronald Lewis said his daughter has had nightmares since the raid. He said his niece was standing next to his daughter that morning, and that an officer pointed a gun at her.

"Now she's having nightmares that the gun went off and killed her cousin," he said.

The lawsuit pits a group of legal heavy hitters against Goose Creek police and school officials.

Motley is known for his billion-dollar battles with the tobacco and asbestos industries and the lawsuit on behalf of the victims of 9-11.

His firm will coordinate the lawsuit with assistance from six attorneys -- Dwayne Green, Jack Cordray, Juan Tolley, Michael Stricker, Thad Doughty and Chris McCool -- from other firms.

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