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SLED Investigating Stratford Drug Sweep 


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Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Author: Glenn Smith and Seanna Adcox Of The Post and Courier Staff 
Published: Saturday, November 08, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Contact: [email protected]

Goose Creek, S.C. -- As police struggled to calm a growing firestorm over their drug raid at Stratford High School, state investigators Friday began probing why officers charged into a crowded hallway with guns drawn while students cowered in fear.

After watching a surveillance videotape of the Wednesday raid, Solicitor Ralph Hoisington asked the State Law Enforcement Division to look into possible police misconduct in the operation. He called for the probe after consulting with Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt.

"I don't think there's anything wrong at all with law enforcement addressing a problem in a high school, but I have serious concerns about the need for restraining students and drawing weapons," Hoisington said. "I don't want to send my child to a school and find out guns are drawn on them. I certainly don't want them hog-tied as part of a sweeping investigation."

Responding to Stratford officials' complaints about drug activity at the school, 14 Goose Creek police officers cordoned off the main hallway at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday and searched for marijuana, at least three with guns drawn. Many of the dozen targeted students were among 107 teenagers in the hallway at the time.

No district official knew officers would come in with guns drawn, said Dave Barrow, Berkeley County School District's high schools supervisor.

A police dog sniffed drug residue on 12 book bags but found no drugs. Twelve to 14 students were restrained with plastic handcuffs during the search, but no one was arrested.

DeWitt said he and Hoisington decided an unbiased investigation of the incident was warranted after they received several calls from parents troubled by the operation. 

SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson confirmed the investigation but declined to discuss details.

Goose Creek police found themselves the center of unwanted attention as videotapes of the raid aired repeatedly on local and national television. Police officials defended the officers' actions and said they welcomed the SLED probe.

Goose Creek police Lt. Dave Aarons said guns were drawn as "a matter of officer safety."

"I don't think it was an overreaction," he said. "Anytime you have qualified information regarding drugs and large amounts of money, there's a reasonable assumption weapons are involved."

Police handcuffed only students who failed to "respond to repeated police instruction," Aarons said. Officers then replaced their guns in their holsters. The plastic "flex-cuffs" stayed on about 10 minutes, he said.

Aarons said parents often don't understand police tactics. 

"I'm absolutely outraged," said Danny Partin, whose stepson attends Stratford but was not in the hallway during the search. "This is supposed to be a free country, not a police state."

Parent Nathaniel Ody went to the police department Friday afternoon to file a complaint. He said his son, a senior basketball player, was pulled from another part of the school Wednesday and placed in the hallway in restraints. He claims his son was compliant but was handcuffed anyway.

"I'm appalled," he said. "To just take a bunch of innocent kids and put them in restraints, and then not even find anything, is ridiculous."

Ody, who is black, accused police of picking on black students and said he plans to get the NAACP involved.

Stratford Principal George McCrackin said officers corralled a handful of students who left their normal spots. He said he watched a student run around the corner and warn others about the police, so officers went to get them.

About 70 percent of the 107 students were black, McCrackin said. By that morning hour, two early buses from predominately black neighborhoods had dropped students at the school, he said.

"The dog does not discriminate," he said about the 12 backpacks with residue.

Barrow said the district would not take a position on whether police acted correctly. This is the first time officers have drawn weapons during a drug sweep in local schools, Barrow said. Sweeps happen periodically at high schools, at principals' request. Most high schools in the county have surveillance cameras, he said.

"We understand students, parents and community concerns about this particular search," Barrow said.

Berkeley County School Board Chairwoman Harriet Dangerfield said Stratford has had a drug problem for some time and she thinks drug-sniffing dogs should visit the school more often. Dangerfield, however, said she was disturbed by the use of guns during Wednesday's raid.

"There is no reason to take guns into school and draw them on children," she said.

Others, however, say the community needs to trust the police to take whatever action is necessary to address a drug problem that clearly exists in the schools.

"I'm sure students were frightened, but the harm they're in with drug dealers is far greater than the police coming in," said Goose Creek resident Judy Watkins. "I trust them to do what's right. I appreciate what they did."

Though the goal may be admirable, two legal experts said police and school officials went too far this time.

"It's amazing. I've never heard of such a thing. I'm surprised, frankly, the police would go along with it," said Eldon Wedlock, University of South Carolina School of Law professor. "This is the kind of thing that really teaches kids a bad lesson about constitutional rights. They don't think they have any."

School officials can conduct limited searches with reasonable suspicion, but authorities need probable cause that a crime has been committed before a person can be searched or arrested, Wedlock said. Sitting students on the floor constituted an arrest, he said.

" 'Let's arrest them all and find out who the bad guys are,' you can't do that," he said. Waivers signed by students to permit searches don't change that, he said. "My understanding is you cannot condition going to school on a waiver of a constitutional right."

"The law currently doesn't favor student rights," said Bernardine Dohrn, an attorney and the Children and Family Justice Center director at Northwestern University in Chicago. But the laws governing searches in schools are based on the rationale that the school is acting in the role of the parent, she said.

"That is, they have the best interests of the students at heart. The best interests of students don't involve treating them like terrorists or criminals. Clearly, the search could have been carried out without weapons," she said.

"Schools are the safest place in America," she said, although student search proponents suggest otherwise. "You want to make a situation where anyone who enters school with a gun a last resort. It doesn't bring safety. It brings fear and terror."

Goose Creek police said information from a student and four days of video surveillance gave them probable cause for the search. Officers went in Wednesday only after McCrackin signaled that students had assumed their usual positions, Aarons said. State Education department spokesman Jim Foster said, "the short answer is probable cause" that made the search legal.

Not so, said Graham Boyd, director of the drug policy project for the American Civil Liberties Union. Boyd said police must only target individual students suspected of drug activity. Boyd said police should have checked those students' bags in the principal's office.

"You absolutely cannot bring police with guns drawn into a school," he said.

Whether the school or police went too far is "ultimately a decision for the courts," Foster said. "Any student who believes his or her constitutional rights have been violated has the option to bring civil suit."

Hoisington said he isn't ready to draw any conclusions, and he doesn't know if any of the police actions rise to the level of a criminal violation. He said he is concerned, however, about the officers' use of guns, the level of fear that was created and the use of restraints to hold students while the raid was conducted.

"I've got some concerns about the physical restraint of somebody unless there is probable cause that they personally are guilty of a crime," he said.

Drug sweeps are nothing new in Lowcountry schools, but Wednesday's operation looked more like a raid on a crack house than a typical narcotics check. Area law enforcement officials could not recall another occasion where police drew their weapons in such operations.

Searches are generally for deterrence, however, not the result of specific drug information, said Berkeley school district spokeswoman Pam Bailey.

Most area police departments use a less confrontational approach, using drug-sniffing dogs to find narcotics in cars or lockers while students are in classrooms. They may also have students vacate a classroom while the dogs check book bags for drugs. Constitutional provisions prevent officers from using the dogs to check the students themselves, police said.

If the dogs pick up the scent of narcotics, a principal or teacher is asked to check for narcotics because they have authority over school grounds. If drugs are found, police will seize the narcotics and arrest the students involved.

"We never use our guns and take people down," said North Charleston police Sgt. William Johnson, who supervises his department's K-9 unit which does 30 to 40 school sweeps per year. "In my personal opinion, I don't think it's necessary to pull guns on students for no reason and put them on the ground."

If he had evidence of students dealing drugs, Johnson said, he would prefer to get warrants and arrest them in a classroom or some less congested setting. 

"That would be a more ideal situation," he said.

Police reserve the use of weapons for situations where there is a perceived threat of harm to themselves or others. Some departments even require officers to fill out a special report whenever their weapons are drawn and explain the need for such action. 

"Obviously, if a police officer displays his or her weapon, there has to be a reason to do so; a threat to his safety or others," said Mount Pleasant police Lt. Shawn Livingston, who offered no judgment on the Stratford incident. 

Charleston County Sheriff's Capt. Dana Valentine said she was unaware of any instances where deputies drew their weapons during school drug sweeps, but she can envision situations where that might prove necessary. Deputies do three to four school drug sweeps per year.

"I think you have to look at all of the things happening in the schools in the past few years. The instances of children bringing weapons into the schools has become more commonplace, and the instances of students assaulting or killing other students has become more commonplace," she said. "The potential for violence is everywhere in society these days, and that has filtered down, unfortunately, to the schools."

Charleston County Board Chairman Gregg Meyers said board members regard police dog drug searches as a "positive, aggressive thing to do."

"We expect police to be disciplined and only pull firearms when they need to," he said. "I don't want to second-guess the police, but we would want them to use restraint in the presence of kids."

A drug sweep at Summerville High School a few weeks ago resulted in two students arrested for marijuana in the parking lot, said Principal David Pugh.

The school, which has cameras in 48 places, periodically brings drug dogs in for unannounced searches. There were three last year, he said. The searches are meant to deter drug activity, he said.

"You hope on one hand you do find something because of the effort, but on the other, you hope you don't find anything," he said.

Pugh said he expects officers to arrive "in full uniform," with guns in their holsters, but none have drawn them in his school.

"It's a difficult business and dangerous situation," Pugh said. "These are serious types of crimes we're dealing with. You don't know what's going to happen. It's a hard call to make, but I think we'll stick with the way we do it."

Bo Petersen also contributed to this report. 

Related Article:

Police Fail To Find Drugs in Stratford High Raid


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