ACLU Settles Detroit Schools Mass Search Lawsuit, School Board Changes Policy

DETROIT The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that the Detroit Public Schools: Board of Education has agreed to settle a lawsuit that was filed in response to DPS’s policy that allows periodic police “sweeps” without notice in Detroit intermediate and high schools. As a result of this settlement, the policy has been changed.

“This is a victory for the rights of students, the schools and the board of education that changed the policy,” said Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “We hope that this case will serve as a reminder to all school officials that students’ constitutional rights extend into the school building.”

Under the negotiated policy changes, school officials may no longer search students’ clothing, backpacks, cars or other items unless they have reasonable suspicion that both the student has violated school rules and the search will reveal evidence of the violation.

While metal detectors at entrances may still be used to detect weapons, DPS has agreed to not prolong the searches longer than necessary.  DPS also agreed, whenever possible, to allow students to return to class after they successfully pass through the metal detectors rather than force them to remain in a ‘holding area’ for up to 2 hours as they had previously.

“Student safety is always my number one priority,” said Sharon Kelso, the grandmother of one of the students who filed the case. “But we must find a balance between protecting our children’s safety and protecting their rights and with this new policy; DPS is closer to striking that balance.”

The suit was filed in 2004 after the entire student body of Detroit’s Mumford High School was subjected to a mass search on February 18, 2004. At the time of the search and under the close supervision of Detroit Police and the School Board’s Public Safety Officers, students were ushered into the school, lined up against the walls, and marched to the end of the hall where they were searched after going through metal detectors.  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 and, as a result, missed their morning classes. No drugs or guns were found upon the conclusion of the search.  

The unlawful sweeps were planned and scheduled in advance and therefore were 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.

According to information given to the ACLU at the time, it is believed that at least two other high schools were searched pursuant to the same policy including Murray Wright High School and Pershing High School.

In addition to the policy changes, the district has agreed to pay the plaintiffs $22, 500 in damages and attorney fees. The City of Detroit Police Department also paid $10, 000 for its role in the dragnet searches.

Along with Williams, the plaintiffs in this case were represented by ACLU Legal Director Michael Steinberg and Moss.

To read the Order of Judgment, go to: http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/briefs/orderofjudgment.pdf

To read the complaint, go to: http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/briefs/mumfordcomplaint.pdf