Teen-ager suspended for alleged drug use

December 27, 1993|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Staff Writer

William Casey went to work Nov. 18, thinking his 16-year-old son, Sean, was in school for a routine day.

What Mr. Casey didn't know was that as he was sipping his first cup of coffee, Sean was being searched in the school office by a police officer because the boy smelled of smoke.

Based on an odor -- but no material evidence -- school officials suspected that the Bel Air High School junior had been smoking marijuana. Sean denied that he had used the drug.

By 10:30 a.m., Mr. Casey had been called and told that his son had been suspended for five days for use and possession of a controlled dangerous substance -- marijuana -- and referred to the office of Harford school superintendent Ray R. Keech for possible long-term suspension or expulsion.

For Mr. Casey, the incident has set in motion a disheartening monthlong lesson in the school system's student discipline policies.

"The Fourth Amendment is insufficient in schools," said Mr. Casey, referring to the constitutional amendment forbidding "unreasonable searches and seizures."

After failing to get a Harford County Circuit Court injunction that would have allowed his son to return to school -- Judge Cypert O. Whitfill ruled Nov. 19 that the school principal had followed proper procedures -- the Casey family had to wait for a Nov. 24 superintendent's hearing.

Mr. Casey described the hearing "as a cross-examination" and said the administrators who conducted the hearing "asked a lot of questions and tried to trip him [Sean] up."

Several days later, the family learned that Sean had been given an additional suspension, but neither the family nor school officials will discuss recent developments in the case or even confirm the length of the suspension.

The Casey family has filed an appeal of the superintendent's decision to the school board, the family's attorney confirmed Friday.

"We cannot comment on the suspension at this time due to the appeal pending," said the attorney, Lawrence A. Richardson Jr.

Court documents filed with the family's unsuccessful request for an injunction say that Sean was searched and questioned by a Bel Air police officer and school officials after arriving late for class with three other boys and smelling of smoke.

School officials say they suspected the boys had been smoking marijuana, but no drugs were found, and the boys were not charged with any crime. School officials said they later found drug paraphernalia wedged in a couch in the principal's office, where the boys had been sitting.

County school officials won't say what action was taken regarding the three other students.

The principal of Bel Air High, William Ekey, acknowledged that he did not permit Sean to make a phone call because "the student doesn't have rights while the school is conducting the investigation."

Claudette McDonald Brown, director of Schoolhouse Legal Services, a project of the statewide, nonprofit organization Advocates for Children and Youth, called it "outrageous" that a student was refused permission to make a call.

"Suppose he is scared, nervous or whatever -- it could be coercion," said Ms. Brown, who trains attorneys to represent students who have been suspended or expelled.

"There must be reasonable suspicion. [In Sean's case] it's a loose standard if a search was made by the school based on an odor and behavior."

Officer Scott Verdon of the Bel Air Police Department, who was called to the high school and searched Sean, found no drugs or drug paraphernalia, only a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, he said.

Officer Verdon said that he, too, smelled smoke on the boys, but he said he did not know whether it came from cigarettes or marijuana.

"It's tough to discern between marijuana and cigarette smoke," Officer Verdon said. "As a policeman, the grounds for being there are slim," he said. "We're not there to arrest a student. We're just there to give support to the school."

Officer Verdon disputed the family's charge that Sean was not permitted to make a phone call, however. "I put a phone book on his lap, and he called someone's house and left a message," Officer Verdon said.

Though no criminal charge was filed, Sean was subject to Harford County's student discipline policies, school officials say.

"The school is custodian to the student," said John M. Mead, the county's executive director of pupil services. "There are numerous Supreme Court cases upholding school rights to search with reasonable cause."

And the smell of smoke is reasonable cause, Mr. Mead said.

The schools are enforcing policies found in the Harford County Parent-Student Handbook, not law, he said.

Ronald A. Peiffer, a spokesman for the state Board of Education, said the Maryland law on suspension and expulsion isn't very detailed, so each school jurisdiction develops its own policies and procedures.

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