S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster said Friday that while police officers created a "dangerous tinderbox situation" when they rushed into the hallway of Berkeley County's largest high school Nov. 5 with guns drawn, such tactics were not illegal.
McMaster, South Carolina's top prosecutor, announced he will not pursue charges against anyone involved in the controversial drug search at Stratford High School and declared the state's case closed. "There is no evidence of any degree of criminal intent on behalf of the police officers or school personnel.
Thus a criminal prosecution would not be appropriate," he said. "Probable cause existed to conduct a search, and the motive involved was to stop drug activity in the school -- a legitimate, important and lawful motive and purpose."
McMaster said the officers carried out standard procedures for other drug busts, which were "grossly inappropriate" in a school. "Such raid tactics are well suited for a crack house but not a schoolhouse," he said. "This is an example of a good plan in the wrong place."
McMaster's decision came seven months after Solicitor Ralph Hoisington referred the case to his office, citing a conflict of interest in deciding whether to press charges against Goose Creek police. Before reaching his conclusion, McMaster said he thoroughly reviewed 900 pages of information collected by the State Law Enforcement Division and videotape of the raid recorded by a Goose Creek officer and five security cameras in the school.
"While we are certainly pleased ... I assure you that we will not abandon our continued self-evaluation of this event, nor will we abandon our prior and significant efforts to resolve the civil lawsuits arising out of these events,"
Goose Creek Mayor Michael Heitzler said in a statement. Goose Creek officers planned the drug sweep with former Principal George McCrackin after watching four days of school surveillance tapes that indicated marijuana sales around a hallway bathroom and a network of student lookouts. McCrackin did not know police would draw their weapons.
Records show that in a meeting just before the search, Lt. David Soderberg told the officers that "where there are drugs, there are guns, so have your weapons out."
When McCrackin gave the signal about 6:45 a.m., 15 officers left their hiding places and entered the main hallway, ordering 130 students to the floor. Officers handcuffed 18 students with plastic ties.
School officials searched 17 book bags to which a drug dog reacted. They found no drugs, and officers made no arrests.
In the confusion of that morning, officers could have mistaken something as simple as a "bang" from a door slamming or book dropping as a gunshot and "set in motion a deadly flash of action and reaction," McMaster said. "The danger of unholstering firearms in a school far exceeds the good intention," he said. "The incident displays poor judgment but no criminal intent."
He said the charges he considered for police and/or school officials included assault, misconduct in office, kidnapping, and pointing and presenting a firearm. Those require proof of malice. He said he also considered criminal civil charges since most of the students involved were black. He said evidence showed that happened because the bus that arrived at that hour, including the one that carried the student who officials suspected of selling drugs, came from mostly black neighborhoods, not because anyone targeted a specific race.
Of the 130 students, 91 were black, 36 were white, two were Hispanic and one was Asian, records show. Less than 25 percent of the school's total population is black.
Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expressed the displeasure of his organization in a written statement after McMaster's announcement. "There are two sacred institutions in our society - -- the church house and the schoolhouse. Today the Attorney General has announced and condoned as legal the invasion of one of these sacred places - -- the schoolhouse in Goose Creek.
"Mr. McMaster shamed himself and his office in his 'condemnation' of this indefensible police action, while at the same time demonstrating to us his belief that the rights of students should be readily expendable."
Louis Smith, parent of a daughter in the school during the raid, echoed Randolph's sentiments. "South Carolina has a long history of covering up injustices that have happened to blacks in this state. What do I expect?" McMaster "said it was a mistake of judgment. To me, most crimes are a mistake of judgment," Smith said.
Hoisington said he is comfortable with McMaster's decision. "I didn't see any malice or intent to do anything but try to make sure the school was safe and that kids weren't breaking the law," he said. "It was just the absolutely worst way to go about it."
Berkeley County School Superintendent Chester Floyd said the search tactics were regrettable. "I am heartened by the fact that the attorney general verified what we have said from our first public statement," he said. "That is, the intentions were pure." No one involved in the case seemed surprised by McMaster's announcement.
Lawyers representing students in a federal lawsuit said it makes their case easier because people subpoenaed to answer questions can't simply cite their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. "This now frees police officers up to be able to talk," attorney Gregg Meyers said.
"They would've been concerned to give their version for fear it would be used against them. "What was supposed to happen, if there was no drug deal, the principal would pull a fire alarm and everybody would disappear and no one would know they were there. But McCrackin gave the signal," Meyers said.
Police "were relying on what the school described they would see. ... It's still wrong, but police have a story to tell the school district is not going to want to hear." Depositions will begin next month. The lawyers plan to question teachers first.
Twenty-three teachers were involved in the search, McMaster said. Denyse Williams, executive director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said McMaster's decision did not affect her belief that students' constitutional rights were violated. Unlike a criminal case, the civil case does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, she said.
The ACLU sued on behalf of 20 students. The case was combined in March with another suit filed for 18 students. Court-ordered mediation sessions ended in May. Lawyers for the students said one party refused to back down.
"The Goose Creek officers and officials are the ones who led the efforts to push this matter to early mediation," Heitzler said. "The attorney general's announcement will not change or lessen our resolve." Nathaniel Ody, parent of two sons listed in the lawsuit, was disappointed but not surprised by the decision.
His sons "wanted to see some justice done on their part," he said. "I hate to explain it to them that's part of life." He said he blamed the district more than the police.
"The district doesn't want to do anything but appease parents and make sure everything goes away," he said. After months of protests, Floyd announced in January that McCrackin had stepped down voluntarily after 20 years as principal to work in the district office.
The district formed a committee of county residents to examine district policies. The school board has approved new and much more detailed guidelines for how schools should conduct drug searches. Smith called the district's actions "too little too late."
He said the district should have had better guidelines before the raid happened. He is calling for Floyd's resignation and the reassignment of the assistant principals involved in the drug search.
"I believe McCrackin was trying to do his job. I don't believe he received good directions from the top. He had no guidelines on how to conduct the raid," Smith said. Hoisington said he had never "heard of anything close to" what occurred at Stratford.
Given the attention and notoriety the case received, "I doubt there will be anything close to it happening again," he said. Eric Holland, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division, confirmed Friday that the agency is investigating the Stratford case. He said he could not discuss details of the probe or predict when it will be completed.
Staff writers Allison Bruce and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.
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