Public schools aren’t supposed to be “enclaves of totalitarianism,” but some local administrators and police never learn

By Damon Krane
December 8, 2000

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[Editor’s note, 1/7/13 – The Athens News declined to publish the following piece, which surely exceeded the newspaper’s word limit for guest columns. However, shortly after its submission I was invited to appear on an episode of the WOUB television public affairs program “In Touch” that focused on the controversial drug search at Federal Hocking High School (discussed below). As the lone students’ rights advocate, I appeared alongside Athens Schools Superintendent Carl Martin, Athens Schools Attorney John Lavelle, and Athens Police Lieutenant Darrell Cogar. While my first television appearance (when I was 21 years old) is unlikely to be remembered as my finest, I am reasonably happy with my performance – particularly because I got Lavelle to concede that the Federal Hocking search probably could not be justified according to the legal standard of “reasonable suspicion.”]

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Police Officer: “Well, when you’ve got a crowd of students, what do people think?”

Student: “The wrong thing!”

-Exchange between Buchtel police officer and Nelsonville-York High School student as police illegally dispersed a student meeting in Buchtel’s public park on Friday, October 22, 1999.

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Since July 1999 I’ve worked in the area of students’ rights through a local group called Free Student Press. Specifically, FSP informs high school students of their First Amendment Press rights and promotes independent student publications as a way for students to make their voices heard.

As former a former high school student publisher, I know what a positive experience it can be to write for a student-run publication. I also know that school administrators are not generally supportive of student expression, and students are often left not knowing where to turn for accurate information on their constitutional rights. So with the help of others like me, I created Free Student Press to provide students with the support they need to make their voices heard.

Shortly after beginning my work, I met up with the insightful and outspoken students who created the publication LockDown at Nelsonville-York High School. Upon the release of LockDown’s first issue, NYHS administrators attempted to ban the publication by threatening to suspend its publishers and remove the valedictorian status of the paper’s lead organizer, thereby jeopardizing her chances of receiving a college scholarship. The very professional educators taxpayers entrust to educate their children proceeded to lied to students about the nature of students’ constitutional rights as US citizens (including the principal, who did so in a conversation tape-recorded by LockDown organizer Devin Aeah). As if that wasn’t enough, armed Buchtel police officers then intervened to deny students their right to freedom of assembly by illegally dispersing a student meeting at a local public park (as captured on videotape by members of Free Student Press).

How did school officials justify their actions? First, as I mentioned, by claiming that students lacked First Amendment rights at school. Then, two weeks later, by attempting to link rumors of impending school violence to the publication of Lockdown and the “outside influences” of Free Student Press. Finally, in a letter to students’ legal counsel, the school’s attorney attempted to portray and obviously anti-drug poem published in LockDown as promoting drug use!

Nelsonville Superintendent Thomas Gumpf’s November 1, 1999 press release provides a telling illustration:

“It has been reported that college students [i.e. me, FSP co-founder Lisa O’Keefe, and a few others] are providing input to members of our student body. With no ties to this community, they have not had to hear the concerns of the parents of our community, nor have they had to counsel the elementary children now afraid in their new school.

“One place where children should feel safe is at school and these individuals took that from some of our students. This is a shame. They have not had the privilege of answering the all-night phone calls from concerned parents and students. They have not had to respond to the school safety issue.

The Neslsonville-York City Schools are safe and we continually endeavor to keep them so. However, this task is difficult enough and to have it challenged by outside influences is regrettable.”

After a lengthy, well-publicized battle, the students prevailed. One year later, the school’s former principal is out a job and new issues of LockDown continue to be distributed at the high school. No further attempts have been made to censor the publication. No disruption of normal school activities has occurred. The sky has not fallen.

[Editor’s note, 2/5/13 – For more information on the LockDown controversy, see “Free Student Press: Because 12 years is too long to be silenced,” Democracy & Education, Fall 2000 and “From Censorship to Neglect?” FSP Report, 1/26/04)

However, it bears noting that students who were merely attempting to exercise their most basic rights as US citizens were forced to face off against public school officials who had no regard for students’ legal rights – school officials who appear to have acted in collusion with a police department that also had no regard for students’ legal rights.

Unfortunately, this is the very sordid history we see repeating itself in the wake of a recent drug search at Federal Hocking High School. Once more, local school officials and local police are acting in concert to deny students their basic rights. And once more, the authorities claim to be denying students their legal rights for their own good.

According to newspaper reports and student accounts, on Friday, November 10 FHHS students were forced to place their belongings in the hallway and, without warning, held captive in their classrooms for nearly two hours – during which time they were not even permitted to use the restroom – while the Athens County Sheriff’s Department conducted a massive search of the entire school, all students’ personal belongings and students’ automobiles. The search turned up a small amount of marijuana according to sheriff’s department, which reportedly conducted the search after one parent claimed a student was distributing prescription drugs at the school. Ironically, the sheriff’s department told the Athens News that the drug sniffing dogs used are not even trained to sniff out prescription drugs.

(See “Fed Hock drug search unfair to students, teachers,” Athens News, 11/13/00; “Police back at FH High School yesterday for drug probe,” Athens News, 11/16/00; “Sheriff, superintendent defend mass drug search at Fed. Hock. H.S.” Athens News, 11/20/00; “Mass drug searches a common occurrence in local schools,” Athens News, 11/30/00)

The search, reminiscent to some of the Alexander High School drug search conducted by black-hooded SECO agents a few years ago and criticized by Federal Hocking students and community members, has since been defended by Federal Hocking Superintendent Ted Bayat and Athens Sheriff David Redecker. Athens High School principal Mike Meek has also added his public support.

Although the Federal Hocking drug search was conducted after one parent reportedly alleged a student was distributing prescription drugs, the search is a textbook case of exactly the kind of arbitrary search and seizure outlawed by the Fourth Amendment. Not only does the vague claim of a single parent fail to cast “reasonable suspicion” over the entire FHHS student body, the police dogs used were not even trained to sniff for prescription drugs – which thereby nullifies any rational connection between the alleged parent’s claim and the search itself.

Now Athens Principal Mike Meek and Athens Sheriff’s Deputy Bryan Cooper tell us that searches like this are also about keeping guns out of schools (Athens News, 11/30/00). Yet they haven’t said whether any of these searches resulted from actual reports which might satisfy the necessary legal requirement of “reasonable suspicion.” And one certainly has to wonder, Are the sheriff’s dogs even trained to sniff for firearms?

Of course everyone wants safe schools, and the words “guns and drugs” spark fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. But are administrative appeals to student safety always legitimate, and are these actions of school and local law enforcement officials really justified?

In recent years Athens County students have become familiar with black hoods, armed officers, police dogs, arbitrary searches and detainment, and the ransacking of their personal belongings. Meanwhile, students who have spoken out to criticize school officials have been threatened with suspension and loss of academic standing, accused of promoting violence and drug use, and met with the illegal exercise of police power. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, we now learn that police regularly conduct secret training exercises after school hours, planting their own drugs alongside students’ personal belongings!

“What we do is after hours we get to go in there and do building searches,” Athens Sheriff Deputy Bryan Cooper told the Athens News ((11/30/00). “We hide our own narcotics in lockers and then we run the dogs down.”

With police themselves bringing drugs into our schools, how can we even know whether a joint that turns up in a locker belongs to a student or was just something the sheriff’s department left behind!? The prospect of some kid’s future being ruined by a forgetful, drug-planting sheriff’s deputy surely ought to put parents at ease!

These actions can only be justified on the basis of student safety if students are considered automatically dangerous when treated as anything other than prisoners. There was a time when teenagers experimenting with drugs and experiencing feelings of serious frustration were considered “at risk.” Now they are considered the risk as schools try to criminalize teen angst in order to “send a message.”

And what exactly is that message?

“People should think twice before bringing drug substances onto this property,” says Superintendent Bayat” (Athens News 11/20/00).

Deputy Cooper adds, “If you want to smoke dope, then don’t go to school” (Athens News ll/30/00).

In other words: If you’ve got a problem, don’t expect anything from us except a world of hurt. And definitely don’t expect an education.

Sure, if police search every student at a school, they’ll probably turn up something illegal. But if police ransacked every home in Athens County, they’d probably find some illegal drugs, too. And one quiet morning, when the adult citizens of Athens County were having their homes invaded and being held captive while armed officers ransacked their personal belongings on the basis of some alleged report of wrongdoing, we would all suddenly have a lot in common with high school students. We’d find ourselves living in the kind of police state our schools have been training them to accept.

That’s not how our schools are supposed to work. According to the landmark US Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under our Constitution.”

Yet despite the court’s fine words in Tinker, the failure of our governing institutions to create any effective enforcement mechanism has ensured that our public schools do indeed function as “enclaves of totalitarianism.” And since our schools are responsible for preparing Americans for adult citizenship, their totalitarianism puts our very democracy at risk.

There is nothing unusual about illegally acts of censorship and arbitrary search and seizures at our schools. However, what sets apart recent local cases is that students acted courageously to make their treatment behind closed doors known to the public. And in doing so, they found many allies in the community.

Any movement to change the totalitarianism of our public schools will depend on students continuing to shine a light on the often hidden operation of their schools. On behalf of Free Student Press, I applaud the local students who’ve stood up and spoken out against educational totalitarianism. My organization stands ready to assist all students in the struggle to make their voices heard through independent student publications like LockDown.

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Epilogue, 2/5/13

Although the 2000 Federal Hocking drug search was defended by local authorities at the time, public outrage appeared to have some positive effects. The sheriff who oversaw the search, David Redecker, lost his bid for re-election. Four months after the search made headlines, the new Athens Sheriff, Vern Castle, summed up the search as follows: “We made a bad impression on the public and on the students.”

Castle went on to join with Athens County Prosecutor David Warren in comparing the Federal Hocking search to another infamous local search conducted by a special drug task force at nearby Alexander High School in 1996. According to the March 19, 2001 Athens News article, “Local law enforcement officials want to beef up school safety”:

“Warren and Castle took pains to distance themselves from policies under previous Sheriff David Redecker regarding school drug/weapons searches, which both men suggested were conducted in a heavy-handed, intrusive manner. These included a search of Alexander High School in 1996 by officers including hooded agents from a multi-county drug task force, as well as a search of Federal Hocking High School last November by sheriff’s deputies and police from Athens and Marietta, which featured drug-sniffing dogs.

“The prosecutor vowed he would not take part in any action resembling the 1996 search, in which a drug task force ‘for lack of a better word, invaded Alexander. We certainly felt that was wrong.’

He added that he wants to work with the schools to develop a single, consistent policy to cover how searches will be handled at any school in the county.

“’You can use the same policy whether you’re searching for drugs or you’re searching for weapons,’ he maintained.

“Castle, likewise, who had been a sheriff’s deputy before unseating Redecker in the last election, said his office ‘would never be a part of a search like (that at Federal Hocking). We made a bad impression on the public and on the students.’

“Warren stressed that local law enforcement agencies still plan to be involved in school searches when they are asked in by the schools, but ‘we’re also going to be looking at the civil rights of the students involved.’”

It is noteworthy, however, that in sharp contrast to these law enforcement officials, local school officials never publicly criticized the search they had so vehemently supported at the time. Furthermore, neither Castle nor Warren explained what made the 2000 FHHS search different from all of the other mass drug searches they were routinely conducting at the time, which did not receive the same amount of negative publicity. Finally, while I am not aware of the illegal censorship of any independent student publications distributed in Athens County schools since the LockDown controversy, a 2004 study conducted by Free Student Press nonetheless found persistent problems at local schools, and Federal Hocking principal George Wood appeared in newspaper coverage of the report to react antogonistically to the report’s findings.

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One Response to Public schools aren’t supposed to be “enclaves of totalitarianism,” but some local administrators and police never learn

  1. Pingback: From Censorship to Neglect? | Damon Krane

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