ACLU Demands Investigation Into Search Of Special Needs Students
Joram Regis, principal of the Prospect Learning Center, a D.C. public school located in Capitol Hill that focuses on special-needs students, developed a string of get-tough ideas to keep his students and teachers in line.
Regis routinely held afternoon faculty meetings in the school's auditorium. These often turned into one-man bitch sessions, in which Regis would hammer his teachers for various misdeeds. If he found that teachers weren't moving around their classroom enough, they got a lecture. If the objective for the day wasn't posted in each and every classroom, they got a lecture. If a teacher didn't want to volunteer their free time at the afternoon daycare center, they got a lecture. But nothing got the attention of eighth-grade teacher Glenn Campbell more than an idea Regis floated during a staff meeting last April.
Regis wanted to search all students. Or at least threaten to do so.
"At an afternoon faculty meeting, he told all of us to spread the rumor that there would be random mass searches at the school," Campbell recalls. "He wanted this to be used as a deterrent. I wasn't really sure what the state of the law was... I didn't think random, mass searches were legal."
Campbell says he didn't pass on the rumor. The student body had enough stress. The school is comprised, Campbell says, of special-needs students—kids with learning disabilities, motor-skills or vision problems.
But in early May, the rumor became reality. Regis, Campbell says, barged into his classroom and ordered all of the male students to get up against a wall. He told the two or three female students to exit into the hallway where they would be searched by a female security guard.
About 10 male students lined the wall. Regis patted each of them down, making them empty their pockets and pull their pocket lining out for inspection, Campbell says. Regis then went into every student's backpack.
Campbell recalls one student asking Regis: "Why are you doing this?"
Regis, who has been described as 6'2 with the build of a linebacker, told everyone in the room that as principal, he had the authority to perform his one-man jumpout. "Because you could be potentially carrying something that's harmful to another student," Regis added, according to Campbell.
All 30 of the eighth-grade students would be searched that day by either Regis or female staff. One student, Campbell says, was found with a handful of very small fireworks. That student was suspended for a couple days.
"I think it's completely wrong," Campbell says. "[Regis] doesn't belong in that position of authority."
Whether Regis thinks he acted appropriately, he won't say. When asked about the incident, he refused to comment. "I have no comment in regards to that," he explained. "I'm going to redirect you to the central office. Have a good day, sir." Regis then hung up on me.
But it isn't just Campbell who is questioning Regis' mass search. This week, ACLU staff attorney Fritz Mulhauser sent a letter to Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee inquiring about the incident and demanding a full investigation. In his letter, Mulhauser describes the search as "unlawful, intrusive and demeaning."
Mulhauser goes on to write:
"The Constitution prohibits searches in school by school staff unless particular conditions are met, which from the facts as we know them were not present in this situation... The principal's remarks and actions show an intolerable misunderstanding of the law. The law is clear that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure applies in schools and that any search by school officials must be justified at its inception and reasonable in scope."
Campbell says a DCPS administrator did come to Prospect Learning Center to investigate the search. Apparently, that investigation from last May has yet to be completed.
"Upon learning of the allegation, DCPS initiated an investigation," says Safiya Simmons, a DCPS spokesperson. "That investigation is nearing completion, but we cannot comment on it any further."
Campbell says he received a solid teacher evaluation—netting a 4.0 in student performance and a 2.36 in administrator's opinions—and could have returned to the school. But he chose not to come back to Prospect. Regis remains the school's principal.