Sheriff to review policy on searches

Kent school community troubled by drug sweep

Some students made to disrobe

May 14, 2004|By Jeff Barker and Chris Guy | Jeff Barker and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - The Kent County sheriff said yesterday that his office was on questionable legal ground when it sent four dogs into the local high school for a drug search without a warrant, patted down 16 students and ordered two female students to partially disrobe.

"We were acting under what we thought was probable cause, and we still believe there was probable cause," Sheriff John F. Price IV said of the search April 16 - the subject of a growing controversy in this Eastern Shore community.

"At the same time, it was an area that was unclear," Price said. "We didn't know it was a gray area."

About 250 book bags in 12 Kent County High School classrooms were scanned by drug-sniffing dogs during the search, the sheriff said. He said the dogs "alerted" on 18 of the bags, whose owners were asked to undergo additional searches. Sixteen students were subjected to "pat-down" searches, while the other two received what the sheriff would describe only as "more thorough searches."

One of the two, Heather Gore, 15, said yesterday that a female deputy ordered her to remove her skirt, then lifted her tank top, exposing her breasts. Gore said she was then told to spread her legs while the officer checked her underwear.

"I'm still just so embarrassed," Gore said.

Her mother, Patricia Gore, said she would push for a change in policy regarding searches. "I certainly have a lot of things besides lawyers' fees I need to spend money on, but my daughter shouldn't have had to go through all this, and neither should anyone else," the mother said.

Price said a weeklong review of the department's policy concluded that the deputy might have used poor judgment, but that she did not violate policy when she searched the girls.

The sheriff said search and seizure "is a very gray area in the schools for police. There is case law that supports what we did and there is case law that doesn't support what we did."

Authorities believed students had become wary of searches in school lockers and had begun stashing illegal drugs in backpacks.

It's not the first time concerns have been expressed on the Eastern Shore about methods to detect illegal drugs in schools. In 2000, Talbot County school officials agreed to scrap a drug testing policy in which students were ordered to provide urine samples that were tested in front of other students in the school auditorium.

The Kent County search raises serious issues, said Deborah Jeon, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Eastern Shore office.

"I think there is a very significant question as to how the entire sweep could be consistent with the Maryland regulation prohibiting investigative searches by a police officer unless there is a warrant," Jeon said. The regulations also bar police from searching a student unless the student is under arrest or believed to be concealing a weapon.

Price said the regulation "governs the school board, it really doesn't govern law enforcement." Still, he said, "We are probably going to change how we do things in schools as the result of this."

He said he and his senior staff will meet this morning with Kent County Schools Superintendent Bonnie C. Ward to review policy. Gordon Sampson, the high school's principal, was not at the school yesterday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.

A policy shift regarding the searches would please Donna Bedell, the mother of Jessica Bedell, who was among the students patted down last month. "I think we probably do have a drug problem at the school, but intimidation and illegal searches are not acceptable," Donna Bedell said.

Jessica Bedell said yesterday that a deputy lifted her skirt during the search.

A sophomore honor student who plays tennis, Bedell is a member of the cheerleading squad and vice president of the student council. She said she has never carried drugs in her backpack.

Bedell said the police drug dogs may have seized on her school bag because it contained a half-eaten package of Pop Tarts. Price said the dogs can make mistakes but are usually reliable.

No drugs were found in the search of the book bags, authorities said, but two students were charged: one with possession of a knife, the other with possession of marijuana.

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