Detroit Public Schools Must Immediately End Mass Searches and Use of Pepper Spray on Students, ACLU Tells Robert Bobb in Letter

DETROIT — In a letter today to Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan expressed its deep concerns over reports of unconstitutional mass searches and the indiscriminate use of pepper spray on students by the district’s police force.

“The ACLU of Michigan wholeheartedly shares community concerns about school safety, and we agree that steps should be taken to address disruptive activities in our schools,” said Mark P. Fancher, ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project staff attorney. “However, we do not make our kids safer by trampling on their constitutional rights and effectively turning our schoolhouses into jailhouses.”

According to the ACLU’s letter, students report that DPS has conducted dragnet searches at Mumford High School since the start of the school year. During these mass searches, teachers and DPS police rifled through students’ private belongings in their backpacks and purses even when there was no suspicion of wrongdoing. The students also report that DPS police officers forced some students to submit to full-body frisks and that the officers used pepper spray indiscriminately in school.

In its letter, the ACLU of Michigan warns of serious constitutional and human rights concerns about any unwarranted use of pepper spray on schoolchildren. In addition, the ACLU tells Mr. Bobb that if the reports of mass searches are true, they not only violate students’ constitutional rights, but also an agreement DPS negotiated with the ACLU of Michigan in 2006 to settle a lawsuit challenging similar mass searches.

“As we respectfully request that you direct all involved to immediately terminate all unlawful, indiscriminate acts,” the ACLU wrote, “we are also hopeful that the change in leadership that is underway at Mumford will make it possible to establish a new environment at the school that encourages learning and ensures the safety of the students and also protects their constitutional rights.”

In 2006, the ACLU of Michigan and the DPS Board of Education agreed to settle a lawsuit on behalf of students at Mumford High School after the entire student body was subjected to searches without suspicion of wrongdoing. As a result of this settlement, the district’s policy on searches was amended, stating that school officials may no longer search students’ clothing, backpacks, cars or other items unless they have reasonable suspicion that the search of a student will reveal evidence of a school rule violation.

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

The letter was signed by Fancher and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

To read the letter, click here.

To read more about the ACLU’s 2006 settlement with the Detroit Public School District, click here.

To read the Michigan ACLU report on Michigan’s “school-to-prison pipeline,” click here.

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