Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Author: Tony Bartelme Of The Post and Courier Staff
Published: Sunday, November 16, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Contact: [email protected]
Issues of substance abuse, legal rights lurk behind Stratford High controversy.
It's 6:45 a.m. Nov. 5 at Stratford High School, Berkeley County's largest high school, home of the Knights. Two teenage girls walk side by side down a spotless hallway, backpacks bouncing on their backs. On either side, groups of boys gather next to their lockers, talking.
Suddenly, as the two girls near the end of the hallway, three police officers dash into view. Their guns are drawn. One officer rushes toward a boy, who instantly sinks to the ground. Two other officers charge into a group of boys. The two girls with the backpacks are caught in the commotion, and they fall to the floor as well. Two surveillance cameras, two of 70 at the school, record it all.
A few seconds have passed.
Students at the other end of the hall look to see what's going on. More officers race from behind, catching these students off guard. One muscular officer with a military haircut wrestles a boy in a sweatshirt to the ground, knocking over a student in a ROTC uniform. Officers sweep down the hall. One officer holds his gun in both hands, swinging it back and forth like a metronome.
The drug dogs come six minutes later, sniffing at backpacks a few feet away from students who are still lying on the ground, some with their hands over their faces. About 12 are restrained with plastic handcuffs.
Then comes the revelation that no drugs were found, followed later by the outrage, and the calls for the resignations of the principal and the Goose Creek police chief. The raid makes international headlines, and almost as quickly as the police burst into the hallway, Stratford High becomes to many a symbol of something gone wrong in the battle to keep drugs out of schools.
What happened that morning has raised questions about searching students with guns drawn and the proper use of drug-sniffing dogs. It also has raised deeper questions:
Is the drug problem so bad in our schools that it requires such draconian measures? And, when it comes to keeping schools drug free, where should administrators and police draw the line?
HOW BAD IS THE PROBLEM?
In recent years, more and more schools have installed surveillance cameras and acquired "school resource officers." Drug sweeps with brief "lockdowns" have become nearly routine at some schools.
These measures come as drug use has declined among high school students, according to national studies.
In fact, today's students use marijuana and cocaine less frequently than many of their parents did when they were in high school.
A National Institute for Drug Abuse study said annual illicit drug use by high school seniors peaked at 54 percent in 1979. Now it hovers at about 40 percent.
Statewide, an estimated one in four high school students had used marijuana in the past month, according to a 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, the latest statistics available. Roughly 7 percent had tried cocaine, while 12 percent had sniffed or inhaled intoxicating substances.
School drug crime statistics also are revealing. In Charleston County's school district, which has more than 41,000 students, officials reported only 81 drug possession and related cases in 2002. Berkeley County reported 47; Dorchester District 2 had 59.
Despite these relatively low numbers, "we're not so naive to think that there's no drug use in our schools," said Mike Windham, Dorchester 2's director of community relations. "We know it's happening. And we have to do what we can to keep drugs out of schools, and sometimes there's a fine line."
While drug use among teens may be declining, school administrators and criminologists say the culture of guns and violence that rose with the cocaine trade in the 1980s added a level of anxiety among students and administrators. The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School ratcheted up fears even more.
"I think about Columbine every day," Windham said.
SEARCH DOS AND DON'TS
Policing large schools such as Summerville High, the largest in the state with 3,200 students, is an especially tough task. To help keep track of everyone, officials recently installed more than 50 surveillance cameras, Windham said.
"You want to make school as safe as you can, but you don't want to make it a prison," he said.
School officials and police also do drug searches. One happened a few weeks ago and turned out much differently than Stratford's raid.
Six groups of officers, each with a drug-sniffing dog, entered as students were starting a school period, said Summerville Police 1st Sgt. Ron Manchester. School administrators announced a lockdown -- no leaving classrooms, no bathroom passes.
The groups of officers then went from class to class, asking students to leave the room for a few minutes while the dogs went in and sniffed around.
"It was very calm and orderly," Manchester said. Students weren't handcuffed or searched. No guns were drawn. In the parking lot, officers went from car to car. Marijuana was found in one, and a student was discretely removed from his classroom and charged with drug possession. The sweep didn't interrupt the school day. It was less intrusive than a fire drill. The anxiety level "was very low," Manchester said.
That search was typical of how many school districts across the state do their sweeps. Some states, South Carolina excluded, have clear guidelines on how and when searches should be done. Virginia, for instance, has a 146-page guide.
Doing a school search properly involves navigating through a thicket of constitutional and other legal issues. In an often-cited New Jersey case, the Supreme Court ruled that although students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate," they do have a lesser expectation of privacy than members of the general population.
Thus, school officials may search students and their property if they have a "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing. Police, on the other hand, can search only if they can meet the higher "probable cause" standard.
Because of these differing legal standards, some schools and districts hire private companies to perform drug sweeps.
For the past five years, Wando High School has used RAID Corp. Inc. of Spartanburg to do its searches. The company has eight drug-sniffing dogs and has clients in three states.
"You've got to handle kids like kids, not like criminals," said Jay Russell, the company's owner. He declined to discuss the specifics of the Stratford raid but said he takes great pains to keep his dogs away from children. (During the Stratford incident, a dog was brought through a hallway while students huddled along walls.)
"What if a dog bites one of the kids?" Russell said. "My dogs have never bit anyone, but they're animals and they have a certain unpredictability to them."
Despite what happened at Stratford, Russell and school administrators say drug dogs are some of their best drug-prevention tools.
"Kids know that if they go out partying, or even get in someone's car where narcotics have been used, the dogs might be able to smell them, so they don't do it," he said.
The number of "alerts" -- instances in which a drug-sniffing dog finds something of interest -- has declined in recent years at Wando High, said Lucy Beckham, the school's principal.
"There are times when we go through the entire building now, and we get only a handful of alerts, and it's rare that we find any drugs," she said.
FUROR OVER FIREARMS
One of the most explosive aspects of the Stratford raid was the police department's decision to enter the school with firearms raised and ready.
After the raid, apparently done while Goose Creek Police Chief Harvey Becker was out of town, Lt. Dave Aarons said guns were drawn as "a matter of officer safety," and that "anytime you have qualified information regarding drugs and large amounts of money, there's a reasonable assumption weapons are involved."
But critics say a gun should be drawn only when an officer's life is in danger.
"We teach our officers that you draw your weapon only if you intend to use it," said Andrew J. Chishom, a senior professor with the University of South Carolina's criminology department. "You don't play around with a weapon. It might go off and, God forbid, kill a student or teacher."
Manchester, the Summerville police sergeant, said he couldn't recall any of his officers unholstering their guns during drug sweeps.
As far as the Stratford sweep goes, though, "they came in like it was a raid on a crack house," said David Schwacke, former 9th Circuit Solicitor and now a private attorney. "If you take those cops and put citizens in their places, they could be charged with pointing or presenting a firearm."
Schwacke said the cuffing of the students also was questionable.
"Once you're in that situation, you're technically under arrest, and if it's not an arrest for a charge, it's false arrest," he said.
Solicitor Ralph Hoisington has asked the State Law Enforcement Division to look into possible police misconduct in the Stratford sweep. The American Civil Liberties Union also is investigating, as is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Lawyers in the area are considering lawsuits. The state Board of Education plans to discuss the issue in December.
"Schools are more secure and practice security better than they did 30 years ago," said Chishom, the USC criminologist.
"But what happened at Stratford says to our kids, 'Do not trust law enforcement, because they might shoot you.' These kids will live with this for the rest of their lives. They will view law enforcement as some kind of paramilitary organization. What kind of signal to the world are we sending?"
Bo Petersen, Seanna Adcox, Steve Reeves, Michael Gartland, Adam Ferrell and Brian Hicks contributed to this report.
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