Students Sue To End Unconstitutional Searches At Detroit Public Schools, ACLU of Michigan Announces

DETROIT – In an effort to uphold the constitutional rights of students, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of two honor students against Detroit Public Schools for violating a previous court ordered settlement that bars the district from conducting unconstitutional mass searches.

“The ACLU of Michigan understands the many challenges confronting the school district in recent years. However, schools may address disruptive activities without trampling on student’s constitutional rights,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “It’s unfortunate that the Detroit school district has not learned from its past mistakes and has decided to thumb its nose at a court order.”

According to the lawsuit, DPS, since the start of the school year, has violated a 2006 court order by searching all students’ backpacks, purses and other personal belongings as they enter Mumford High School – even though they have no reason to believe that any student is violating school rules. The mass backpack searches are conducted even though the students must first pass through a metal detector, a practice that the lawsuit does not challenge. The lawsuit also claims that DPS police officers forced some students to submit to full-body frisks without any suspicion of wrongdoing.

“It is important that as we teach and guide our children to do the right thing and follow the law, we hold ourselves to the same standards,” said Sharon Kelso, a plaintiff in the case whose granddaughter attends Mumford High School. “It’s a shame that once again these children’s trust was broken by the very people who have committed to protect them – their teachers. As a community we must explore what kind of message these searches send to our kids.”

Kelso’s granddaughter, Raina McBurrows, is an honor roll student and athlete at Mumford High School. Her backpack and purse are searched on a daily basis and, in one case, she was patted-down.

In November, after hearing reports from McBurrows and other students, the ACLU of Michigan sent a letter to Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb warning him of the serious constitutional and human rights concerns related to the district’s conduct.

In its letter, the ACLU of Michigan reminded Bobb that such mass searches not only violate students’ constitutional rights, but also a court ordered agreement DPS negotiated with the ACLU of Michigan in 2006 to settle a lawsuit challenging similar mass searches. As a result of the consent decree, the district amended its policy on searches, 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, the policy set out guidelines for metal detectors at entrances, which stated that, whenever possible, the school must allow students to return to class after they successfully pass through the metal detector.

“We should not treat our children like criminals when we don’t even have reason to suspect that they’ve committed a crime,” said Mark P. Fancher, ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Staff Attorney. “Heavy-handed law enforcement tactics will only turn our schoolhouses into jailhouses.”

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Michigan released a comprehensive report entitled “Reclaiming Michigan’s Throwaway Kids: Students Trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which documents the trend amongst school districts of criminalizing, rather than educating, students.

In addition to Steinberg and Fancher, the attorneys representing the students are ACLU Cooperating Attorney Amos Williams, ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Daniel Korobkin and ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

To read the complaint, click here.

To read the motion to hold DPS in contempt of court, click here.

To read the letter to the school district, click here.

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

To read the 2006 consent judgment, click here.

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

Related Issues: