DETROIT – At a news conference this morning, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced a challenge to a policy that has allowed the Detroit Police Department and the Detroit Public Schools to conduct mass searches of middle and high school students.
“These searches are not based on any individualized suspicion of criminal behavior,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “Before you treat someone like a criminal, you have to suspect that they’ve committed a crime.”
As a result of a Detroit School Board policy that allows periodic “sweeps” without notice in Detroit intermediate and high schools, the entire student body of Detroit’s Mumford High School was subjected to a physical search on February 18, 2004. The search included a pat-down of the students, and inspection of the contents their pockets, purses and school bags.
Metal detectors are always operational at the school’s entrance, but were moved to the back hall on that day. Instead, students were ushered into the school, lined up against the walls, and, under the close supervision of Detroit Police and the School Board’s Public Safety Officers, marched to the end of the hall where they were physically searched. They were then taken to the school auditorium and not allowed to leave until the entire search was concluded, about one and one half hours later.
Some students questioned the police officers’ right to search, but were quickly silenced when an officer told them to “shut up” or they would be arrested. “My grandson was scared,” said Sharon Kelso, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I’ve raised him to be respectful, but he was treated disrespectfully. What really bothers me is that I dropped him off to get an education, and instead he missed two hours of classroom instruction only to be treated like a prisoner.”
The unlawful sweeps were planned and scheduled in advance and therefore not based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that any particular student or group of students had committed or was about to commit a crime or violated the law in any way. No guns or drugs were found at Mumford High.
According to information given to the ACLU, it is believed that at least two other high schools were searched in the same manner and pursuant to the same policy including Murray Wright High School and Pershing High School.
Amos Williams, the ACLU cooperating attorney handling the case, likened this practice to a police raid with no warning or warrant. “As a retired police lieutenant with 17 years of experience with the Detroit Police Department, I know what’s right and what’s wrong in a search. A search with no particular or individualized suspicion turned this schoolhouse into a jailhouse.”