Drug war harassment at school

By Swan Eagle, Upper Columbia Human Rights Coalition

Colville, WA: In the spring of 2001 the Victim Response Committee of the Upper Columbia Human Rights Coalition was contacted by Kim Mangis, a resident of Stevens County. She was concerned about the well being of her daughter, an honor student at a small, rural high school.

Mangis' daughter, Kaleigh was charged with being a Minor in Possession after a search of her backpack at school. A pipe was found, and students were pitted, one against another. Kaleigh opted for 'diversion' and was sentenced to a $10 fine, 32 hours of community service, and had to write an essay on "Making Better Choices." She will not be able to get her driver's license until she is 17, and had to resign from her position on the Associated Student Body-not because she'd smoked marijuana, but because she got caught with a pipe. If she stays out of trouble until she is 18, her record will be expunged; one mistake and she will receive the maximum punishment for her offense.

Kim Mangis explained that after diversion was completed, her daughter was targeted by teachers and the school principal and subjected to three searches. The third search went too far, and Mangis called our local organization.

Kim says that her daughter had passed a stick of gum to another student prompting the teacher to report her to the principal. According to the family, the principal asked Kaleigh to empty her pockets and surrender her coat for a search. Kaleigh reminded school officials that to conduct a personal search, her mother or a police officer had to be present; she was told by the principal that it wasn't illegal for school officials to conduct a search and would not allow her to call her mother. When she attempted to leave the office to call her mother, a school secretary held her daughter by the shoulders while the principal dialed 911. Kim says that her daughter, now frightened, quickly complied with the search and hadn't struggled with the secretary because she knew the woman was pregnant. The principal wasn't satisfied when a search of pockets and coat yielded nothing, and asked the young woman to remove her shoes and socks. She had nothing illegal in her possession.

After a basketball game, Kaleigh complained that one teacher took a cup of coffee from her, tasted it, telling her he was checking for alcohol. The same teacher followed her and a friend down an alley. This mother is concerned because the harassment has not only affected her daughter but many of the other students as well. They are afraid they will become targets of harassment, too.

Perhaps the worst result was the targeting of another student as a "snitch" after writing a paper admitting her guilt. This public admission freed her from formal diversion. She told the truth, but had no idea the repercussions she would face with her peers. Later she was beaten-up by other angry kids, and shunned entirely. The snitch was dubbed a narc. Kaleigh tried to intervene and correct the situation, but according to school policy was forbidden any contact with the student.

Later, based on an anonymous phone call, a senior and two of her friends were searched. Nothing was found. Word of a hate list spread through the school. It was reported that the principal, several teachers and the "snitch" were on the list.

The small 9th grade class was publicly humiliated and labeled as troublesome. Students' grades plummeted; life long friendships disintegrated. Hostility prevailed as trust and mutual respect was destroyed by the zero tolerance of drug war policy that did not make these high school students "safe."

Once we heard the story, it was decided that I would act as witness while Kaleigh passed out copies of the ACLU pamphlet on students' rights. Students have the right to remain silent when questioned by a school official, and the right to ask to see parents or a lawyer. School officials may search students without a warrant when they have "reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated either the law, or rules of the school."

Kaleigh told me that she learned a life lesson that made her more aware of her rights and more willing to assert them. Kim has learned things too. She believes it is crucial for parents to pay attention to what is happening to their children at home and in school and to try to check in at least twice a week. Parents cannot relax and must ask questions. Not wanting to upset the family any further, Kaleigh had not even mentioned the first two warrantless searches.

Swan Eagle Harijan has lived in Stevens County for most of the past 26 years. She is the mother of three talented children. Along with cross cultural bridge building, she is an artist, and peace activist.