ACLU and Students Challenge Drug Sweep at Maryland High School

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
November 3, 2005 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE — Two Kent County families and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today filed a lawsuit challenging a warrantless, investigative drug sweep at Kent County High School, during which drug-sniffing dogs were deployed. The lawsuit charges police and school officials with violating students’ rights by seizing and searching their bags and subjecting them to humiliating bodily searches without just cause.

“”I was physically violated and I believe that the sheriff’s department abused its power,”” said Heather Gore, one of the students represented in today’s case who was strip-searched by a police officer during the drug sweep. “”School systems need to protect their students and not allow police to lock kids in their classrooms for unwarranted searches.””

On April 16, 2004, Kent County High School Principal Gordon Sampson invited the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a lockdown of the school. During this lockdown, officers under the direction of Sheriff John Price IV conducted a warrantless search of students and seized student property without the students’ consent or the consent of their parents. Drug detecting dogs were used to sniff backpacks and other student belongings, and some bags were searched by hand. None of the searches turned up any contraband. Nonetheless, Officer Marcellene Beck subjected Gore, who was 15 at the time, to a full body strip search. Officer Beck also conducted a pat-down search of Jessi Bedell, another plaintiff, and forced her to lift her skirt and expose her underwear.

“”To go from fruitless backpack searches during a drug sweep to strip-searching young girls is an indefensible stretch of legal authority,”” said Deborah A. Jeon, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maryland. “”We think it was appalling for the sheriff’s department to undertake these actions without a warrant or individualized suspicion, and for school officials to have invited this kind of operation into the school.””

In the lawsuit, which was filed in Kent County Circuit Court, the ACLU states that the actions of the school and law enforcement officials violated students’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Constitution and state law, as well as state and local educational rules and regulations governing the conduct of school searches.

“”In the pursuit of a safe learning environment for all children in Maryland, we cannot sacrifice each student’s individual right to be treated with dignity and due process,”” Jeon said.

Bedell, who was 16 at the time of the sweep, agreed. “”School is supposed to be a place you can feel safe, and police officers are supposed to be people you can trust. For me, that was ruined by the search,”” she said.

Bedell said she graduated a year early in order to limit her time at the school following the incident, and now attends Temple University in Philadelphia. Gore, who is now a senior at Kent County High School, hopes to be a teacher and plans to attend Chesapeake Community College next year.

The case is being handled by the ACLU and pro bono attorneys Barry J. Fleishman, John C. Snodgrass and Christopher L. LaFon of law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky LLP in Washington, DC.

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