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How Reefer Madness Helped Kill Philando Castile

The Minnesota cop who was acquitted last week of killing Philando Castile used the fact that he smelled marijuana in the car as part of his defense. Whether Officer Jeronimo Yanez really believed Castile's presumed pot use made him more dangerous or whether the testimony influenced the jury's decision to acquit remains unknown, but its use in his defense illustrates the enduring power of the demonization of the plant and its users.

Castile's killing last year sparked angry demonstrations and made national headlines after his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, with a bloodied, mortally wounded Castile moaning as Reynolds says "That police just killed my boyfriend, he's licensed, and he was trying to get his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm."

In the video, Yanez is visibly agitated: "I told him not to reach for it; I told him to get hand up!" he yells.

"You told him to get his ID, sir," Reynolds responds, as her four-year-old daughter in the back seat attempts to comfort her. "Oh my God. Please don't tell me he's dead. Please don't tell me my boyfriend just went like that."

Castile did go just like that, though. He was pronounced dead at the Hennepin County Medical Center 20 minutes after Yanez opened fire, shooting seven bullets at him.

Dashcam video from Yanez's patrol car, not released until Tuesday, shows that it only took 30 seconds before Yanez opened fire.

Yanez didn't mention marijuana in Reynolds' video, but in court transcripts of his testimony, Yanez said he opened fire on Castile in part because he could smell marijuana—and he assumed that Castile had been using it in front of the child.

"I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he's—if he has the guts and audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke, and the front seat passenger doing the same thing, then what—what care does he give about me?" Yanez said.

The argument apparently is that smoking pot in front of kids makes you a stone cold killer. Never mind the hyperbole of "risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke," in Yanez's mind, someone who would smoke pot around kids is not only endangering their lives, but would be willing to kill a cop over a pot charge or a broken taillight (the original reason for the traffic stop), and that justifies pumping Castile full of lead.

Police did later find traces of marijuana in the vehicle, and defense attorneys used that and the marijuana smell to also insinuate that Castile was so high he was slow to comply with Yanez's demands. That made Yanez even more suspicious, the defense claimed.

But Yanez's claims about secondhand smoke border on the bizarre. Yes, ingesting secondhand pot smoke can be harmful, but secondhand smoke is quite different from intent to harm a police officer. And the most notorious source of unwanted secondhand smoke is cigarettes, yet no one insinuates that smoking them around kids makes you more likely to be a cop-killer. Yanez and his defense attorneys were singing a Reefer Madness tune with this claim.

Despite Yanez's claims and phobias, pot smokers are no more likely to behave violently than non-users, and in fact, some research shows they are less likely to. A 2014 study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that marijuana use among couples was associated with lower risk of domestic violence.

Philado Castile was black. That was strike one. He was armed (and admitted it). That was strike two. And he was a pot smoker. That was strike three. Reefer Madness, either in the mind of Officer Yanez or the minds of the jurors, or both, helped kill Phil Castile. 

Legal Pot Dramatically Cuts Traffic Stop Searches

In states where marijuana has been legalized, traffic stops resulting in searches by state police are down dramatically, according to a new analysis from the Marshall Project and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

With marijuana possession being legal, police in legal states can no longer assume criminal activity merely because of the presence of pot, which would have given them probable cause to conduct a search. And that means fewer interactions between drivers and police, reducing the prospect of dangerous—or even deadly—clashes.

But even though the number of searches dropped for all racial groups, black and brown drivers are still being subjected to searches at a higher rate than whites, the study found. And because the report only studied state police (Highway Patrol) stops, not stops by local law enforcement, which patrols urban areas with higher minority population concentrations, it may understate the racial disparity in traffic stop searches.

The report is based on an analysis of data from researchers at Stanford University, who released a report this week studying some 60 million state patrol stops in 31 states between 2011 and 2015, the most thorough look yet at national traffic stop data. The results from the legal pot states of Colorado and Washington are striking.

In Colorado, the number of traffic stop searches dropped by nearly two-thirds for whites, 58% for Hispanics, and nearly half for blacks. In Washington, the search rate dropped by about 25% for whites and Hispanics, and 34% for African-Americans.

Still, racial disparities in search rates persisted in both states. In Colorado, the search rate for black drivers was 3.3 times that for whites, and the rate for Hispanic drivers was 2.7 times that for whites. In Washington, blacks were twice as likely to be searched as whites, while the searh rate for Hispanics was 1.7 times that of whites.

The traffic stop search data parallels what happened with marijuana arrests in legal states.  In Colorado, for instance, a 2016 Department of Public Safety report found that while the number of pot arrests dropped by nearly half after legalization, the arrest rate for blacks was still nearly three times that of whites.

"Legalizing marijuana is not going to solve racial disparities," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. "We need to do a lot more before we get at that."

But legalizing marijuana does reduce the number of traffic stop searches, and given the fraught relationship between police and the citizenry, especially communities of color, that is a good thing in itself. 

Watch: Minnesota Drug Task Force Cop Assaults Motorist

Worthington, Minnesota, resident Anthony Promvongsa, 21, had a run-in with an angry motorist as he drove through the streets of town last July 28. Promvongsa went on his way, but that agitated motorist -- who turned out to be an off-duty cop -- called on his colleagues to go after the young man, and this is what happened:

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube.)

The cop doing the cursing, kicking, and punching in the video is Agent Joe Joswiak, a city of Worthington police officer and a member of the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force.

"I had no idea what was going on when I was approached and attacked by this officer," Promvongsa said in a statement released Thursday by the ACLU. "I did not even have the opportunity to take off my seatbelt before I was literally blindsided with this unnecessary attack. I immediately pulled over for the Worthington squad car and before I knew what was happening, I was beat and ripped from my vehicle."

"I know I am not the first person to have this type of traumatic experience with law enforcement in Worthington," Promvongsa added.

Not only did Joswiak brutalize the young man, he and local prosecutors then charged Promvongsa with multiple felonies over the alleged traffic incident. He faces charges of fleeing in a motor vehicle and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon (his car), but, as the ACLU notes, "no matter what happened before the dashcam video began rolling, Anthony did not deserve to be abused by the police in this way."

Joswiak claims that Provongsa refused his order to leave the car, but the video makes clear Joswiak never gave him any chance to do so. Instead, the ACLU notes, "it shows a textbook case of excessive force."

There was no mention of any drug offense in original police reports, although police searched Promvongsa's vehicle after assaulting him. Later in the video, Joswiak can be heard hopefully asking Promvongsa "Have you been in trouble with narcotics?" He received a negative response.

The ACLU says it and Promvongsa are weighing their options, and calls on the Worthington Police and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force "to immediately investigate the incident, take all appropriate personnel actions, and ensure this never happens again." It also calls for Agent Joswiak to be "held accountable for his actions, up to and including termination and prosecution."

The ACLU's concern that "this never happens again" suggests that it has happened before. "Based on additional complaints that we are receiving, this does not appear to be an isolated incident," the ACLU said. "Rather, there's evidence that racial profiling and police brutality are systemic problems that span the Worthington Police Department, Nobles County Sheriff's Office, and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force as Worthington becomes a much more diverse city."

The incident has drawn the attention of US Rep. Tim Walz, who represents the area. "Like many Minnesotans, I found the video released today deeply disturbing," he said in a statement Thursday. "I have had a chance to speak with local officials and leaders in the community and believe all parties are passionate in pursuing justice. I will continue closely monitoring this situation. Addressing situations like this one in our communities and in Minnesota is an absolute necessity and we are all in this together."

The Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, Worthington Police Department and the Nobles County Attorney's Office issued a joint press release Thursday afternoon that amounted to hunkering down and evading the issue of excessive force altogether.

"The July 28, 2016 video released by ACLU is one piece of evidence in a pending criminal case," the release begins. "Release and discussion of evidence in pending criminal cases is limited by the data practices law and criminal court procedural rules. The video, viewed in a vacuum, shows only a short segment of the incident that is the basis of the criminal charges."

"Because the case is now awaiting a jury trial date, the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, Worthington Police Department and the Nobles County Attorney's office feel it is inappropriate to comment further."

The Buffalo Ridge Drug Task force lauds itself for "aggressive enforcement" and brags about "seizures of vehicles, firearms, jewelry, and large amounts of cash." But now it's becoming known nationwide because of the "aggressive enforcement" actions of one of its officers.

Worthington, MN
United States

Customs Seizes Childproof Marijuana Lock Boxes, Calls Them "Drug Paraphernalia" [FEATURE]

In a prime illustration of the perversities of the war on drugs, US Customs has seized a shipment of a thousand lock boxes aimed at allowing marijuana, tobacco, and pharmaceutical users to keep their stashes safe from kids. Customs has officially designated the boxes as drug paraphernalia, even though everyone involved concedes the boxes are aimed at preventing drug use by kids.

The stash cases were designed by and destined for Stashlogix, a Boulder, Colorado, firm established in the wake of marijuana legalization in the state in 2012 to address a mini-panic over news reports about the dangers of marijuana for kids. Those reports were generally overstated, but the need for secure stashes for pot and other potentially dangerous goodies remained.

"People didn't have ways to safely store these items out of reach of kids, other than up on shelves or in sock drawers," Stashlogix cofounder Skip Stone told the Washington Post. So he and a partner founded the company to market cases and containers "for the storage and transport of medicine, tobacco, and other stuff."

The company's small, lockable cases, with tiny jars and odor-neutralizing inserts included, were a hit with customers. "People love the product," Stone said. "They use it for all sorts of things, but cannabis is definitely one of them. They keep it locked, they feel safer, they feel more responsible."

So the company geared up production, placing orders with a Chinese factory, but things came to a crashing halt on April 28, when Customs seized 1,000 of the storage cases.

"This is to officially notify you that Customs and Border Protection seized the property described below at Los Angeles International Airport on April 28, 2017," read a letter received by Stashlogix. The agency had seized the bags, valued at $12,000, because "it is unlawful for any person to import drug paraphernalia."

Stashlogix's childproof pot lock box
When challenged by Stashlogix, Customs conceded that "standing alone, the Stashlogix storage case can be viewed as a multi-purpose storage case with no association with or to controlled substances," but it pointed out that the odor-absorbing carbon inset could be used to hide the smell of weed, and it cited favorable reviews of the product in the marijuana press, concluding "that there exists one consistent and primary use for the Stashlogix storage cases; namely, the storage and concealment of marijuana."

The federal government doesn't officially recognize the legality of medical or recreational marijuana, and Customs is following decades-old drug war paraphernalia laws to achieve a perverse result: Making marijuana potentially riskier in places where it is legal. After all, half of current pot smokers are parents, and this application of federal policy is making it more difficult for them to keep their kids out of their stashes.

Stone is appealing the ruling, but in the meantime, he's had to write off an additional $18,000 worth of goods still outside the country and lay off his three employees. He's looking for a domestic manufacturer for his cases, since Customs can't mess with domestic goods and the DEA hasn't made paraphernalia a high priority, but the ultimate solution lies in Washington.

"It's going to take an act of Congress to clear up some of these contradictions between state and federal law," he told the Post. "These paraphernalia laws are outdated. Keeping kids safe should be more important than outdated regulations."

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's a New York-New Jersey special edition! The Troy Police drug unit is under investigation, an NYPD officer gets popped for transporting drugs for money, a New Jersey cop gets caught with his hand in the pill jar, and more. Let's get to it:

In Troy, New York, the entire Troy Police drug unit was under investigation as of last Friday for trying to cover up a raid where members entered a home without a search warrant. Members of the unit filed a false burglary report to try to justify their warrantless entry resulting in a "fractious argument" among them. Now, all six officers in Firearms Interdiction and Narcotics Suppression (FINS) unit have been suspended pending the results of an internal investigation.

In Bridgeton, New Jersey, a Vineland police officer was arrested last Wednesday after allegedly pilfering drugs from a prescription drug drop-off box while on duty at police headquarters. Officer Richard Janasiak, 30, went down after an internal audit uncovered possible criminal activity. He is charged with unlawful possession of prescription legend drugs.

In New York City, an NYPD officer was arrested last Thursday for transporting marijuana and cocaine in exchange for money. Officer Nysia Stroud, 29, agreed to transport drugs after meeting with an undercover police officer in March and became transporting large quantities of supposed marijuana and cocaine for payments ranging from $250 to $1,000. Stroud was under investigation after Internal Affairs received allegations she was involved in drug activity. She was charged with possession of a controlled substance and official misconduct.

In Elizabeth, New Jersey, a former Middlesex County probation officer was sentenced last Friday to three years in prison for taking bribes from a man so he could avoid court-ordered drug tests. Rhonda Battle, 48, repeatedly accepted bribes from the probationer to allow him to skip drug testing while in the drug court program. After being caught on surveillance video taking money from the man, Battle pleaded guilty in April to a single count of official misconduct.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's pretty quiet on the corrupt cop front week, except for one drug-gobbling Tennessee cop and Burritogate in Tulsa. Let's get to it:

In Ripley, Tennessee, a former Ripley police officer was sentenced last Friday to four years' probation after turning up as a suspect in an undercover drug investigation. Stephen Michael Kirkpatrick wasn't the intended target, but information developed in the investigation led to him being charged on numerous counts. He pleaded guilty to two counts of official misconduct, 13 counts of cocaine possession, one count of marijuana possession, one count of meth possession, and one count of misuse of official information.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Tulsa County jail guard was arrested last Friday after deputies found drugs hidden inside a burrito he brought into the jail. Guard Kevin Mayo, 20, went down after the burrito turned out to be filled with marijuana, methamphetamine, and prescription pain pill. He is charged with possession of contraband in a jail, conspiracy to commit a felony, possession of both marijuana and methamphetamine, possession of a schedule II drug, and possession of drug paraphernalia. He is now on unpaid leave and in jail.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A North Dakota sheriff was letting meth suborn him, a Florida sheriff's deputy was tweaked on steroids, and more. Let's get to it:

In Fessenden, North Dakota, the former Wells County sheriff was arrested last Tuesday on bribery and methamphetamine charges. Johnny Zip Lawson, 41, is accused of consuming meth provided by a local man in exchange for not investigating break-ins and burglaries in the area that may have been committed by that man. He is charged with conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, methamphetamine, a Class A felony, and bribery-unlawful influence of public servants, a Class C felony. He was also charged with three Class A misdemeanors: providing false information to a law enforcement officer, neglect of duty and ingesting a controlled substance, methamphetamine.

In Bridgeport, Connecticut, a Fairfield police detective was arrested last Friday for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars' worth of heroin and Oxycontin from the department's evidence room. Detective Stephen Rilling, 40, is accused of signing out heroin, Oxycontin, and cocaine for "testing," but consuming the drugs himself. He is charged with third-degree computer crime, second-degree larceny by defrauding a public community, possession of narcotics, second-degree forgery, tampering with evidence and false entry by an officer or agent of a public community.

In Daytona Beach, Florida, a Volusia County sheriff's deputy was arrested last Friday on accusations that he stole money and a synthetic steroid from a driver during a traffic stop. John Braman, 24, went down after body-camera video showed him taking money out of the driver's wallet. Prosecutors said body camera video showed at least two more cases of Braman ripping off motorists and that investigators found steroids and syringes in Braman's car. He is charged with theft, official misconduct, and possession of a controlled substance.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Connecticut top narc gets nailed for stealing dope, an NYPD officer get nailed for peddling dope, a Hawaii cop gets a wrist-slap for "promoting" dope, and more. Let's get to it:

In New Orleans, an Orleans Parish sheriff's jail employee was arrested last Thursday after she was caught in the act smuggling heroin and other drugs into the parish jail. Ciboney Parker, 23, went down after jail authorities recorded phone calls made between her, an inmate, and the inmate's girlfriend setting up a delivery. She got popped when she showed up at work with the drugs. She is now charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin, possession of schedule IV drugs (tramadol) and bringing contraband into a correctional facility.

In New York City, an NYPD officer was arrested last Thursday for allegedly peddling drugs on the street in Queens while off duty. Officer Jose Sierra got popped for selling drugs to a man on 111th Street in Corona. He is a five-year veteran of the force.

In Fairfield, Connecticut, the Fairfield Police Department's lead narcotics detective was arrested last Friday on charges he stole heroin and other drugs seized during police operations. Detective Steven Rilling, 40, is charged with third-degree computer crime, second-degree larceny, second-degree forgery, possession of narcotics, false entry by an officer or agent of a public community and tampering with evidence. Rilling only stole drugs from cases in which he was involved, police said.

In Honolulu, a former Honolulu police officer was sentenced Tuesday to 60 days in jail on multiple drug charges. Alan Ahn got into trouble when police raided his girlfriend's house after undercover officers bought drugs there. While he was looking at up to years, he copped a plea, admitting to "promotion" of cocaine, marijuana, and painkillers. He must also do four years' probation.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

The former Fresno deputy police chief is headed for federal prison, a former North Carolina cop is headed there, too, for running armed escorts for supposed traffickers, and more. Let's get to it:

In Evansville, Indiana, a Vanderburgh County jail guard was arrested Monday on charges he was supplying tobacco and Ritalin to inmates. Trent Nolan, 24, went down after authorities were tipped off and set up a controlled buy for Ritalin with him. He is charged with dealing in a scheduled substance and trafficking with an inmate.

In Saginaw, Michigan, a former Saginaw County Jail guard was arrested Monday for allegedly removing evidence discovered after a man was booked into the jail on drug charges. He is charged with one felony count of evidence tampering and is looking at up to four years in state prison.

In Washington, North Carolina, a former Windsor police officer was found guilty Monday on charges he provided armed support to drug traffickers. Antonio Tillman, 33, went down during an investigation into "systematic law enforcement corruption" in Northampton County after he accepted $6,500 from undercover FBI agents posing as traffickers to escort shipments of 30 pounds of heroin from North Carolina to Maryland. He was convicted of multiple counts of conspiring to distribute controlled substances, attempting to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, conspiring to use and carry firearms in relation to drug trafficking offenses, using and carrying firearms in relation to drug trafficking offenses and federal programs bribery. He is set for sentencing in August.

In Fresno, California, the former deputy police chief was convicted Tuesday on federal drug trafficking charges. Keith Foster, 53, went down after being recorded talking about buying drugs and being surveilled by FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms agents. He was convicted of two charges -- conspiracy to distribute heroin and conspiracy to distribute marijuana -- but acquitted on six other counts. He's looking at up to 20 years in prison.

Chronicle AM: Drug Policies Fueling Hep C Rise, MI Init Begins Signature Drive, More... (5/19/17)

The CDC issues a damning report about drug policy and Hep C, the clock is ticking on the Vermont legalization bill as the governor ponders his choices, Michigan legalizers hit the streets with petitions for 2018, and more.

State-level policies toward injection drug users can influence Hep C rates -- for better or worse. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Legalization Initiative Signature Gathering Gets Underway. The state Board of Canvassers Thursday gave its go-ahead for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol to begin signature gathering for its marijuana legalization initiative, and the group immediately sent canvassers onto the streets. The measure would legalize up to 2.5 ounces and 12 plants for adults and create a system of legal marijuana commerce. The campaign needs a little more than 252,000 valid voter signatures within six months to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

Texas Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization. A new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll has a slight majority for marijuana legalization, with 32% saying small amounts should be legalized and 21% saying any amount should be legalized. That's 53% for some form of legalization. Some 30% said only medical marijuana should be legal, while only 17% said no form of marijuana should be legal.

Vermont Clock Ticking on Legalization Bill -- Governor Has Five Days to Veto or Not. The state legislature sent the legalization bill it approved -- Senate Bill 22 -- to Gov. Phil Scott (R) on Thursday. Under state law, he has five days to sign or veto the bill. If he fails to act, the bill becomes law without his signature. He is facing heavy pressures on all sides. Stay tuned.

Drug Policy

High Hep C Rates Linked to Drug Policy Failures. A report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 17 states had high rates of Hep C because they lacked laws and Medicaid policies to prevent drug users from being infected with the disease or obtaining treatment once they did. Seven of those states had a Hep C rate more than twice the national average, and all the others also had above average rates. The report said the states needed to focus more on reducing intravenous drug users' Hep C risk by enacting laws such as allowing pharmacies to sell syringes to the public and by enacting Medicaid policies that do not require patients to be drug free for a certain people before getting treatment. "It is important for policy makers and public health officials to work together to understand the various needs of particular populations to prevent HCV transmission and disease," the report concluded.

International

Trump-Santos Meeting Shows Divergence on Drug Policy. As President Trump and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed reporters at a White House press conference Thursday, clear drug policy differences emerged. While Trump emphasized "building the wall," or an interdiction-based strategy, Santos declined to endorse that strategy, explaining that drug policy is a complex international issue that requires innovation and collaboration. "We declared the war on drugs 40 years ago -- the world declared the war on drugs -- and it's a war that has not been won. We must be more effective and more efficient," Santos said.

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