February 15, 2004 - The Chicago Tribune (IL)

High School Drug Raid Rattles Town

Race Is Subtext As Ex-Chicagoan Joins Lawsuit Accusing SC Officials Of Violating Students' Rights

By Flynn McRoberts

GOOSE CREEK, S.C. -- LaTise Simpson grew up amid the poverty and violence of Altgeld Gardens, the sprawling public housing project on Chicago's Far South Side. She moved to the relative quiet of this Charleston suburb so her children would never know such a life.

So Simpson was all the more enraged last fall when her 14-year-old son, LeQuan, found himself among the 107 students at Goose Creek's Stratford High School subjected to a raid by police who stormed the hallways with guns drawn and a drug-sniffing dog, looking for narcotics.

"Right after his dad dropped him off, he was pulled by the collar, pushed up against the wall and told to get down with the gun pointed at him," Simpson said of LeQuan, a point guard for Stratford's junior varsity basketball team and now co-plaintiff in a federal lawsuit. The suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union charges police and school officials with violating students' constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. A similar lawsuit has been filed by Ron Motley, a South Carolina plaintiffs' lawyer who became famous when he took on Big Tobacco.

The raid also prompted the state attorney general's office to open an investigation into the raid in which some students were handcuffed.

Last week, an outside review panel recommended changes to school district policy to ensure that searches are "limited in scope" and "not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the person searched and the nature of the suspected infraction."

But it is race more than age or sex that is at the heart of the controversy over the raid, which found no drugs and involved mostly black students in the mostly white school.

The incident has served as another reminder that in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, as in so many places across the nation, racial tensions often simmer just below the surface of everyday life.

After video of the raid aired nationwide, the fallout forced the only principal the school has ever had, George McCrackin, to step down. McCrackin, who is white, has been replaced by a black woman.

Retired Assistant Takes Over

Mildred Brevard, a former assistant principal once hired by McCrackin, came out of semiretirement to help restore peace to this middle-class high school, which sits along a wide, tree-lined boulevard and proudly touts its star rifle squad and National Science Bowl team.

"Having been an administrator at Stratford previously, the transition was easier for everyone," Brevard said Thursday. "Now that the constant disruption of the media spotlight has subsided, Stratford High is back on track and stronger for the experience."

The raid wasn't the first racially tinged incident at the school.

Several years ago at Stratford, which is on land that used to be a plantation, several students were suspended for refusing to take off T-shirts promoting a rap group. The shirts, which replaced the red, white and blue of the Confederate flag with the colors of African nationalism--red, black and green--had offended some white students.

"We have laws now, but you can't change hearts. And it's problems of the heart that keep cropping up," said Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of the state chapter of the NAACP. The Civil War, he said, still shapes life here. "There's a cessation of hostilities, but it's not over in South Carolina--not by a long shot."

The Nov. 5 raid at the high school in Goose Creek--where nearly 79 percent of the 29,000 residents are white and 14 percent are black--came as the South Carolina coast has struggled to put out a series of racially charged brushfires.

In the nearby city of North Charleston, police in November fatally shot a mentally ill African-American man armed with a knife after he had stolen a ham from a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. That prompted Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was born in Greenville, to return to his native state and lead protests of the shooting and the raid at Stratford High.

And in Charleston, the police chief, who is black, was forced last month to make a qualified apology for his comment on the city's 18 homicides in 2003.

"I refuse to take responsibility every time one black son of a bitch kills another," Chief Reuben Greenberg had said. "There are social factors much more powerful than anything we can concoct in the Charleston Police Department."

Greenberg later appeared with local civil rights leaders and said he was "apologizing to anybody who mistook my words." Officials cite cameras

In the Goose Creek drug raid, police and school officials have been less contrite. The local superintendent said he was sorry the raid happened the way it did. But officials also pointed out that school surveillance cameras had indicated students were selling drugs inside the school. In fact, drug arrests at Stratford had spiked, from 16 all of last school year to 15 in the first three months of this school year alone.

As for the high number of black students subjected to the raid, which occurred about 6:40 a.m., the spokeswoman for the county school system said it was "a coincidence" because at that time of the morning buses drop off students from predominantly black neighborhoods.

"Drug dogs don't sniff color," said the spokeswoman, Pam Bailey.

During a news conference at the time, Lt. Dave Aarons of the Goose Creek Police Department said of the raid: "I don't think it was an overreaction. I believe it was one method, one tactical method, by which we could safely approach the problem to ensure that everyone was safe."

McCrackin declined to comment when reached by phone at home, but he told a local TV station after the raid, "I'll utilize whatever forces that I deem necessary to keep this campus safe and clean."

Introducing Brevard to the faculty recently, McCrackin told teachers that he resigned because he didn't want the microscope that he lived under to be directed at the school.

But the actions of the police and McCrackin, who helped oversee the raid, appear to have divided the school community along racial lines.

"I saw the whole thing. I didn't see anyone get a gun put in their face," said Jennifer Johnson, 15, a freshman at Stratford. Like some other white students, she said McCrackin should not have stepped down.

"He was principal here for 20 years," she said.

Several black parents saw things differently.

"Look, I'm from a military family, and I don't think it's fair to put children through trauma, no matter what they did," said M.P. Stewart, 55, whose son is a senior at Stratford but was not among the students searched that November morning. "Even as an adult, I don't want a gun pulled on me."

Parents of those involved were more adamant.

"My husband is a police officer for another county," Simpson said. "Even if he wasn't, I wouldn't appreciate anyone pushing my son against the wall and pointing a gun at him. At that time of the morning, the only students in the school are athletes or kids involved in band or some other function."

`Someone Who Understands'

Having Brevard return as McCrackin's interim replacement seems to have salved some of the wounds.

"Even though it's temporary, I think that's good," Simpson said, "not because of her color but because she is someone who understands all the kids from her being there before."

Still, Simpson questioned the actions of the authorities, saying that if they had indeed been watching surveillance cameras for several days before the raid, they should have known better whom to search.

"There was no need," she said, "to subject 107 good kids to what they were subjected to."

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