Students Walk The Line

, Nisha N. Mohammed, Leave a comment

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.— John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is warning school officials in the Albemarle County Public Schools against failing to respect the constitutional rights of its students and their parents, particularly in regards to their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. In a letter to Superintendent Pam Moran, Whitehead called on school officials to cease their practice of subjecting students to police-administered breathalyzer tests without their parents’ knowledge or consent and based on nothing more than an accusation of alcohol use by another student, regardless of the credibility of the accusation. Whitehead weighed in on the issue after being contacted by a parent whose daughter was given a police-administered breathalyzer test despite the fact that school officials allegedly lacked any independent evidence or suspicion of alcohol use on her part. The test results indicated no alcohol in her system.

The Rutherford Institute’s letter is available here.

“As surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches become the norm in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, we are witnessing a new paradigm in America where young people are increasingly viewed as suspects and treated as criminals by school officials and law enforcement alike,” said Whitehead. “It is my hope that the Albemarle County Public Schools, situated as they are near the birthplace of the man who envisioned America as an ’empire of liberty,’ would lead the way by raising up students who not only possess a sound academic understanding of their constitutional rights but who have also experienced first-hand what it means to have their rights respected.”

According to her parents, Maggie Kooken, a sophomore at Western Albemarle High School, was subjected to a police-administered breathalyzer test on March 10, 2011, based on an unsubstantiated accusation by two fellow students that she had used alcohol. Maggie’s accusers, who remain unidentified, told a teacher that Maggie had been drinking lemonade mixed with alcohol at school. The teacher allegedly reported the accusation to Associate Principal Greg Domecq without making any apparent efforts to corroborate it. Dr. Domecq observed Maggie during lunch but saw no indications that she was drinking alcohol. In fact, Dr. Domecq later told Peter Kooken that Maggie’s behavior at lunchtime was not unusual and that she “seemed fine.”

Despite the lack of any independent evidence or suspicion of alcohol use by a school official, Dr. Domecq allegedly took Maggie out of her next class and escorted her to his office, where a policeman—a county law enforcement officer—was waiting to administer a breathalyzer test. The test proved the accusations to be false: Maggie had no alcohol in her system.

In demanding that Albemarle County Public Schools immediately cease their practice of breathalyzing students, Whitehead has asked that school officials not only act to remedy the wrongs perpetrated against Maggie Kooken but also recognize the greater need for reform within the school district’s policies as they relate to basic civil liberties, including—in this instance—bedrock principles of due process of law and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Nisha N. Mohammed is the press contact for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational civil liberties organization which provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.

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