Charlevoix High School Lockdown Unconstitutional, ACLU Tells District In Letter

March 15, 2010

CHARLEVOIX, MICH. – In a letter today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan harshly criticized the Charlevoix Public Schools handling of a 2008 incident at Charlevoix High School in which the entire school was placed on lockdown after an act of vandalism was discovered. Although school safety was never threatened, the entire student body was on lockdown for several hours and hundreds of students were lined up against a wall and searched by teachers and police.

“The ACLU of Michigan recognizes the many challenges schools face. However, public schools are not Constitution-free zones,” said Steve Morse, chair of the ACLU of Michigan Northwestern Branch Lawyers Committee. “Lockdowns should only be used in emergencies when school safety is threatened and should not occur just to make an investigation more efficient. The school district needs specific criteria for what kind of disturbance requires a lockdown to ensure that student rights are preserved, while maintaining order in the school.”

On the morning of May 21, 2008, two students discovered that the school’s building trades class project house had been vandalized with paint and graffiti. They reported their findings to school personnel and by 9:30 a.m., the entire high school was on lockdown, with police officers and a local prosecutor on the scene.

During the lockdown, all students at the school -- approximately 400 in total were required to remain in their classrooms for approximately three hours. They were never told why the lockdown was ordered. Police officers and school officials then went to each classroom and forced the students to line up against the wall and present their hands, clothes, and the bottoms of their shoes for inspection. Every student was inspected for signs of paint because the vandals had splashed paint throughout the house. Some students were pulled out of class for additional questioning.

“Such harsh tactics and the increased presence of law enforcement effectively transformed Charlevoix High School from a schoolhouse to a jailhouse,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “Through new and clarified policies, the school district can stem the tide of criminalizing innocent students. Schools routinely treated as crime scenes become crime scenes; and children routinely treated as criminals become criminals.”

According to the ACLU’s letter, the lockdown was unconstitutional because students were required to remain in their classrooms for several hours and were not allowed to leave to use the restroom or go to lunch despite the fact that there was no reason to believe that school safety was threatened or that the entire student body was involved in the vandalism. In addition, the blanket search of the entire student body violated the student’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

The ACLU of Michigan asked the school district to implement new policies governing lockdowns and student searches, seizures, and interrogations. Lockdowns are only warranted under limited circumstances in which school safety is in jeopardy, the ACLU said, and in order to detain, search, or interrogate a student, the school must have reason to suspect that an individual student did something wrong. In addition, the ACLU of Michigan asked the Charlevoix Public Schools and the Charlevoix County Sheriff's Office to define the role of law enforcement on school grounds.

In addition to Morse and Korobkin, the ACLU of Michigan letter was signed by Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director, and Albert Quick of the ACLU of Michigan Northwestern Branch Lawyers Committee.

To read the letter, click here.

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