ACLU Urges Calm and Responsible Action After School Shootings

April 29, 1999 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Thursday, April 29, 1999

ALBUQUERQUE, NM –The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico today issued a request for calm and responsible action by school officials and law enforcement in response to reports that students in New Mexico schools have been subjected to punishment for merely exercising their First Amendment rights.

The ACLU referred to complaints received from parents in the Rio Rancho and Socorro public schools in which students were penalized for “doodling” sketches of bombs, schematics of their schools and communities, and other constitutionally protected, non-criminal activities. The students’ punishments included assignment to Alternative Learning Environments, suspensions and threatened suspensions, requirements to submit to psychiatric evaluations, and confiscation of personal property.

“We are all shocked and saddened by the horrifying events in Littleton, Colorado this past week,” said Keith D. Elston, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “It is human nature to want to assign blame and to excessively react to our own environment when these things happen, but we shouldn’t be too willing to trample on students’ constitutional rights when there is no evidence that they have done anything wrong — and a great deal of evidence to show that they are good, law-abiding young people. To do so amounts to nothing more than a witch hunt.”

As a result of these activities, police and school officials have come to students’ homes requesting warrantless searches for weapons and other items that might incriminate the young people. One student was told that he will be assigned to an in-school detention for the remainder of the school year and required to pass a psychiatric exam before he may be considered for enrollment in the fall term.

“None of these students’ actions are illegal, nor do they demonstrate any indication that the students are intending to engage in illegal conduct,” said Philip Davis, co-legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “This is distinctly different from students who are phoning in bomb threats to school campuses, which should be promptly investigated by the proper authorities and dealt with swiftly and appropriately.”

While there has been a flood of complaints of excessive and reactionary behavior, there have also been some excellent examples of reasonable responses, Elston said. The Albuquerque Public Schools, the Albuquerque Police Department, and the City of Albuquerque have been outstanding models of balanced and responsible conduct in response to several bomb threats and hysteria.

“Superintendent Brad Allison, Mayor Jim Baca and Police Chief Jerry Galvin are to be commended for their handling of these situations,” Elston said.

ACLU affiliates across the country are receiving an avalanche of complaints from students and their parents about similar overreactions by school officials and local police. In one South Carolina community, for example, a student was interrogated because he possessed a chemistry book on school property and it was feared that he might use it to make a bomb. The ACLU is also receiving numerous reports of trench coats being confiscated and dress codes being passed to forbid the wearing of camouflage clothing on school grounds.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.