ACLU files suit over Stratford raid

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20 students ages 14 to 18 represented

by Seanna Adcox
The Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier

December 16, 2003

GOOSE CREEK — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Monday on behalf of 20 students ages 14 to 18, claiming "gun-wielding officers" and a "large and aggressive police dog" terrorized them during an unconstitutional drug raid Nov. 5 at Stratford High School.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston accuses school and police officials of violating search and seizure laws and using excessive force. It asks the court to declare the raids unconstitutional and block officials from conducting similar raids. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages.

At a noon news conference, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called the drug search a "dragnet driven by race." The lawsuit, however, does not include charges of racism. "The ACLU shares that concern, and we also believe that no student, black or white, should ever have to go through the kind of nightmare that our clients experienced," said Denyse Williams, executive director of the state branch.

The group wants to complete its investigation and give school officials a chance to explain the lopsided percentage of black students detained, before asserting racism, said ACLU attorney Antonio Ponvert III of Bridgeport, Conn., one of a team of lawyers representing the students.

Fourteen Goose Creek officers rushed into the hallway of Berkeley County's largest school about 6:45 a.m. Nov. 5, several with guns drawn, and told students to get on the floor. Officers put plastic restraints on about a dozen of the more than 100 students detained, while a barking police dog sniffed their backpacks. Officers found no drugs and made no arrests.

The lawsuit also accuses police of assaulting and falsely arresting students, causing emotional distress. "The defendants terrorized the students and betrayed the promise of a safe, secure learning environment," the lawsuit states. Their "actions left the plaintiffs feeling betrayed, humiliated and wrongfully accused."

Of the 20 students named, 19 are black. Defendants include the Goose Creek Police Department, city of Goose Creek, Chief Harvey Becker, Lt. David Aarons, Berkeley County School District, Principal George McCrackin and 20 unknown officers and high school faculty identified only as "John Doe."

"In the years and decades to come, the Goose Creek Police Department's paramilitary style raid ... will become synonymous in the nation's mind with what happens when our country's anti-drug policy is turned over to government officials who, in their zeal to counter perceived illegal activities, themselves act illegally, irreparably damaging the civil rights of the students they are sworn to protect," Ponvert said. McCrackin has said that about 70 percent of students in the hallway were black. At that early hour, students from predominately black neighborhoods have dropped students off at school.

"I was confused, scared and angry at the way I was being treated," said ninth-grader Elijah Le'Quan Simpson, 14, who is part of the ACLU suit. "I knew I didn't have drugs. I saw kids thrown like rag dolls and yelled at like slaves."

McCrackin went to the police Nov. 3 with suspicions of drug sales, supported by video surveillance and an unidentified student who, according to a police report, told administrators he bought a "twenty-bag" of marijuana from a student. McCrackin suspected a particular student who arrived on one of the early buses, the report said. The lawsuit accuses school and police officials of "acting in concert and conspiracy with each other" to plan the raid."The implication of any kind of conspiracy is a sensational perspective," said district spokeswoman Pam Bailey.

School officials have repeatedly said they did not know officers would come in with guns drawn. "At no time was there any indication to me that the requested search would involve any police officers having guns drawn 'at ready.' Police have never drawn weapons in any search prior to Wednesday," McCrackin wrote in a Nov. 11 letter sent home to parents. "I was surprised and extremely concerned when I observed the guns drawn. However, once police are on campus, they are in charge."

Ponvert said he believes McCrackin, but called his defense an "astounding admission" at how poorly the search was planned. Jackson said McCrackin should have asked officers to put their guns away. If officials had specific information about students, they should have approached those students and their parents and not involved a hallway of innocent children, he said. "Race was one factor, complicated by an overreaction on nonviolent drug use in the first place," Jackson said. The ACLU lawsuit does not seek any terminations. Ponvert said that's a community issue.

Superintendent Chester Floyd has already said a similar raid will not occur in Berkeley County schools. He said video footage of the raid has shocked and concerned him, as well. "While I want to make sure we do anything we can to keep people from encouraging other students to take up habits, there has to be a better way to do it than what was demonstrated at Stratford," he said last week. "I'm sorry this method was used. It's created havoc within our community and divisiveness we don't need and unparalleled disruptions." He declined to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, calling that "inappropriate" considering the litigation. "I'm assuming now the courts will decide," Floyd said. "But I don't anticipate that at any time in the future will we ever have any such drug search with the same type of methodology used."

It is the second federal lawsuit filed this month against the controversial search. Local trial lawyers filed on behalf of 18 students Dec. 5. The two cases name different students.

The ACLU clients are Carl Alexander Jr., 15; Marcus Blakeney, 15; Jeremy Bolger, 14; Chernitua Bryant, 15; Micah Bryant, 17; Danyielle Ashley Cills, 14; Tristan Cills, 14; De'Nea Dykes, 16; Rodney Goodwin, 15; Jalania McCullough, 17; Joshua Ody, 16; Samuel Ody III, 17; Arielle Pena, 14; Cedric Penn Jr., 15; Rodricus Perry, 18; Timothy Rice, 15; Cedric Simmons, 17; Shnikqua Simmons, 15; Elijah Le'Quan Simpson, 14; and Nathaniel Smalls, 14