When police stormed Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, three years ago with guns drawn, they ordered students to lie on the floor as dogs sniffed them in a surprise drug sweep.
Fifty-three students and their families joined in a class-action suit against Goose Creek police and the Berkeley County School District over the November 5, 2003, incident, claiming their constitutional rights were violated.
On Tuesday, a federal judge gave preliminary approval to a settlement with the students and their families, according to Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Law Reform Project. Boyd said the settlement could have an effect on students' rights across the country.
The agreement sets up a $1.6 million fund. Based on lawyer's estimates, students who sued or required medical or psychological help after the raid will receive around $11,000 each. Other students who were in the hallway at the time of the raid will each get around $6,000, with final amounts contingent on how many students decide to take part in the settlement.
Tapes show approximately 140 students in the hallway during the raid.
Dr. Chester Floyd, Berkeley County School District superintendent, could not be reached for comment, but he told the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier he was happy with the resolution of the case. "It's time for this to go to bed and put it behind us," he said. U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy is expected to give final approval of the settlement as early as July.
After images of the raid were spread across the world, Goose Creek officials changed their policies on drug searches, and the school's longtime principal, George McCrackin, resigned. According to the Post and Courier, most of the $1.6 million settlement — which includes $400,000 for the students' lawyers — will be paid by insurance companies, with Goose Creek paying $60,000 out of its own funds and the Berkeley County School District kicking in $50,000. Police found no drugs and made no arrests in the raid.
The ACLU's Boyd said the settlement took so long because of the repeated back-and-forth between the city police and the school district over how to resolve the issue.
"Part of it was about money, and the other was about what kind of court order they'd be subject to in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening again," he said. Though money was an issue, the larger matter raised by the raid was a constitutional one, and Boyd predicted that the settlement and the conditions it imposes on the school district could have a larger effect on student privacy in schools around the country.
"In this case, the school principal had some sketchy information about a kid who was selling marijuana in the hallway of this school," Boyd said. "The information was that the kid was black, and the principal's response was to go to the city police and say, 'Let's do a police action on this thing.' The city police had just gotten trained on SWAT tactics for taking down a crack house, and so you had cops with bulletproof vests and guns hiding in stairwells and closets when students arrived at school."
Boyd said the predominantly white school has a group of black students who are bused in and typically arrive at school earlier than their peers. So when the raid was conducted, the majority of the students who were confronted by cops were black.
Though McCrackin did not see the student he suspected of selling drugs on the surveillance system the morning of the raid, Boyd said the principal approved the raid anyway. Students who were caught in the sweep told MTV News at the time that they feared for their lives as 14 officers pointed guns in their faces, forced them onto the ground and, in some cases, handcuffed them if they fidgeted or took their hands off their heads. Meanwhile, Boyd said, "white students began arriving, and some were disturbed and confused. It was like something out of another era."
The ACLU became involved because of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure. "Whether the police or a school want to search or seize a person, it has to be done in a manner that's reasonable," Boyd said. "There was no reason to suspect any single person in that hallway, yet every single person in there was forced, with no choice, and seized by police in a completely unreasonable manner."
In addition to the multimillion-dollar settlement, Boyd said the strict restrictions put on the Goose Creek police and the school district could send a signal to police and schools.
"Students have less rights. They can be drug tested and can be searched on reasonable suspicions," Boyd said. "Whereas with adults, you have to have a warrant signed by a judge or probable cause. The consent degree in this case will hold the police to a higher standard, which will help prevent them from overreaching again. The message it sends to everyone is that you need to be good at self-governance and don't overreach the bounds because you will be held accountable."