A November 5th drug raid at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, has sparked national media attention, local outrage, a state police investigation, and a rapidly coalescing protest movement in the usually tranquil Charleston suburb. As television viewers nationwide saw, the 6:40am raid featured an aggressive squad of police bursting into a school hallway with guns drawn, forcing cowering students to the ground, and handcuffing those they claimed complied too slowly with officers' shouted demands while police drug dogs sniffed for contraband. None was found.
The Goose Creek police were called in by Stratford High Principal George McCrackin, who told local media he had seen an increase in "drug activity" at the school in recent weeks. But while McCrackin made the decision to seek police assistance, it was Goose Creek police commanders who made the decision to treat students in their community as if they were enemy combatants. In an interview with the Charleston Post & Courier two days later, Goose Creek police Lt. Dave Aarons defended police tactics. Police drew their guns as "a matter of officer safety," he said. "I don't think it was an overreaction," he said. "Anytime you have qualified information regarding drugs and large amounts of money, there's a reasonable assumption weapons are involved."
Along with finding no drugs, however, police also found no guns. Both the Goose Creek police and the school district have since retreated into a defensive silence. A police spokesman told DRCNet Thursday that the department could not comment because of an ongoing investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Porter confirmed to DRCNet that an investigation is underway, but declined to say anything else. School district officials did not return repeated calls for comment from DRCNet.
But if the school district and the police aren't talking, a lot of other people are. "I couldn't believe this was actually happening here in the US," said Sharon Smalls, whose 14-year-old son Nathaniel was one of the students victimized in the raid. "I thought it was a bad joke until I actually saw it on the news. Most parents are really outraged about this," she told DRCNet, "and the only ones who are not outraged are the ones whose kids were not involved. It is not ever okay to point a gun at a child's head," she said.
"Those police put Nathaniel on the floor with guns to his head and searched his pockets, his socks and his shoes," Smalls said. "I know the school says they were surveilling the kids for some time, but why they went after these particular kids, I don't know. They didn't find any of them doing anything wrong. Nathaniel is frightened and confused."
Nathaniel Smalls is probably not alone in being traumatized. "I would expect to see some degree of fear in students as a result of this operation," said Dr. Ken Ruggiero of the National Crime Victims' Research and Treatment Center (http://www.musc.edu/cvc/), which just happens to be located in nearby Charleston. "I would expect elevated fear and distress among kids who have never been exposed to that kind of scenario, but also among kids who have been exposed to violent neighborhood crime or domestic violence as well," he told DRCNet. "This could trigger emotional reactions for these kids and that would be bad for them."
Ruggiero noted the irony of a crime victims' center commenting on the trauma resulting not from criminal activity but from police behavior and made the depressing observation that perhaps high school students need to be educated about the possibility of being caught up in such heavy-handed police actions in the future. "I'm sure many of those students suffered at least a temporary high level of fear and distress," he said. "Maybe we need to make them more aware of the likelihood that these things may be possible in the future. But I hope we can find better ways of managing this in the future."
University of California-Santa Cruz sociologist Mike Males is no trauma specialist, but he knows a thing or two about targeting youth. Author of such books as "Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation" and "The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents," Males viewed the Stratford High raid with a skeptical eye. "The extreme step of deploying a team of gun-brandishing officers to a school hallway, tactics applicable to violent criminals, is not justified even if the evidence presented by the school principal and school board are accepted as accurate," he told DRCNet. "It is not clear why -- if camera surveillance videos were clear enough to show actions as subtle and secretive as drug sales -- the students suspected of selling drugs were not simply identified and arrested individually. Nor would it make sense for drug sellers to deal inside a school knowing they were being caught on video cameras when there are many unmonitored places to sell drugs."
But for Males, the Stratford raid is only the most outrageous recent example of an adult world petrified by kids. School officials are afraid of massive drug activity and even more afraid of being seen as not forcefully addressing it, said Males, but "the striking and puzzling reality is that subsequent evidence consistently shows that nothing even remotely approaching such drug abuse or student violence exists." School drug testing turns up few positives, Males noted, while lengthy undercover investigations produce few and unspectacular results. "I am not aware of a single raid, sting, testing operation, or other action that has turned up the drug rings, doped students, and violent enterprises school and police officials insisted were taking over the school," he said.
"Even more bizarrely, none of these calming results seem to ameliorate adults' intense fear," Males continued. "Even after investigations find a school's students are clean, officials and officers immediately return to claiming, absent any evidence, that there must have been massive drug activity at the school that only their stern intervention deterred and that future repressions will be undertaken. Clearly, the scary fact we are facing is not stoned students, but a complete breakdown of adults' rational ability to perceive what is really going on and a frantic response that puts guns against 15 year-old bodies to ward off a problem that doesn't exist."
[Males is compiling a compendium of similar drug or violence enforcement outrages in high schools. If anyone wishes to submit an incident, Males can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The National Youth Rights Organization (http://www.youthrights.org) were also outraged. "What the police and principal conspired to do and carried out was a scene out of Iraq, not South Carolina," said Alex Koroknay-Palicz, president of the group. "It reflects the shoddy treatment of youth. Most businesses don't want drugs in their offices, but they don't send in armed police with guns drawn. Our society has respect for people who work in offices, but not for students. Students are treated as second class citizens," he told DRCNet. "The Supreme Court used to say the Constitution didn't stop at the schoolhouse door, but now everything is reversed."
The raid also raised the hackles of constitutional scholars. "First of all, Goose Creek is not the Sunni Triangle," snorted University of South Carolina law professor Eldon Wedlock. "From what I can see, the behavior of the police there was outside the law," he told DRCNet. "Even though the Supreme Court had decided that students in school have a lesser expectation of privacy, school authorities need to have a particularized suspicion that a certain student is committing a crime. When school officials call in the police, I say the police still have to operate under constitutional rules; they have to have probable cause. Here you have a whole bunch of kids detained -- they were under arrest under any interpretation of the law. They were not free to go," Wedlock continued. "The police did not have any probable cause to arrest those kids -- and if police deprive you of your liberty in any meaningful way, that's an arrest. This was way over the top; I don't know what possessed these people. I don't know anyone in education, law enforcement, or criminal justice who would sign off on something like that." Both the school district and the police department are wide open for lawsuits, he added.
And they could see just that from the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Policy Litigation Project. "We have some people from our office going down to investigate," said project spokesperson Anjuli Verma. "All we know at this point is what we've seen on the news," she told DRCNet, "but we will be looking very closely at this."
The ACLU isn't the only reform organization headed for South Carolina as a result of the raid. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) activist Dan Goldman was expected to arrive in Charleston Thursday evening, and US Marijuana Party (http://www.usmjparty.com) head Loretta Nall has been on the scene since Tuesday. "What we have just witnessed was the most graphic and disturbing example of the increasing criminalization of students," said SSDP national director Darrell Rogers. "What SSDP wants to do is provide a voice to help students speak more loudly and clearly to defend themselves and their rights. We are there to support the efforts of students and their families, and we will be working with other drug reform and civil rights groups to highlight this outrage."
"I met with about 200 students today and handed out brochures," Nalls told DRCNet Thursday. "They are all really upset and interested in putting together a formal organized protest. The student body in general is really pissed off, and they're really happy to find out they're not alone. When Dan Goldman gets in town tomorrow, we'll meet with the students again, and I'm thinking we'll have a rally in front of the police station on Saturday. If we show up with a couple of hundred angry students, maybe the police and the community will get the message."
Nall told DRCNet that most of the students she met with were white, as is 80% of the Stratford High student body. But of the 107 students detained during the raid, about 90 were black. Race appears to be the unacknowledged factor here. As Nall noted, "only the black people are talking about race."
Sharon Smalls and her son are black, and Smalls is one of those people talking about race. "We have a majority white high school, yet almost all the kids targeted were black. Funny how that happens, isn't it?"
Visit http://www.ssdp.org for Students for Sensible Drug Policy's press release condemning the Goose Creek raid.