Riverhead school officials take stand, deny drug search

05/15/2013 3:45 PM |
Federal court in Centrai Islip

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The United States Eastern District Court in Central Islip.

In February 2007, Riverhead Middle School eighth-grader Tarone Love was pulled out of class by a security guard, said Harriet Gilliam, an attorney for the now 21-year-old man.

He had given one of his friends some money he owed and another some change for snacks that day, she told the 10-person jury in federal court Tuesday. School officials thought he was selling drugs, she said.

Mr. Love claims that after being removed from class, he was patted down and made to take off his boots and turn out his pockets because he was singled out for being African-American.

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“This was a traumatizing experience for this young man at that young age,” Ms. Gilliam said. “One minute or two minutes can seem like an awfully long time in the principal’s office with the principal and a security guard.”

But John Shields, the defense lawyer for the school district and the other administrators being sued in the case, said Mr. Love’s story about discrimination was — and still is — pure fiction.

“I wish I could come here and say this absolutely happened, but it didn’t,” Mr. Shields said. “It’d be easy to say it happened.”

Mr. Shields said allegations of discriminatory policies at the school are “absolutely false,” adding that if Mr. Love had been searched, the school’s procedures would not have violated his rights.

The federal privacy and discrimination lawsuit filed by Mr. Love and his mother, Marilyn Love, kicked off this week in U.S. Eastern District Court in Central Islip, as the three people allegedly involved in searching Mr. Love testified in court. All three of those witnesses said the incident never occurred.

Ms. Love and her son allege that Mr. Love’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when we was subjected to an unreasonable search. They are seeking $2 million in damages.

The Riverhead School District, the Board of Education, then-district superintendent Paul Doyle and Riverhead Middle School principal Andrea Pekar are all named as defendants in the lawsuit, being tried before Judge Arthur Spatt.

Alicia Johnson, a security guard at the school who allegedly removed Mr. Love from class in 2007, was the first of the plaintiff’s witnesses to testify.

Ms. Gilliam continually questioned Ms. Johnson — who, like the other witnesses Tuesday, was called in on a subpoena — about the school’s policies regarding searches of students.

Ms. Johnson said security guards are not allowed to search students on their own and generally bring any student suspected of improper behavior to a school administrator. Then, Ms. Johnson explained, the administrator would ask the student to give up any items that could harm someone, or any other contraband. In this case, the alleged physical search never occurred, she said, adding that such a frisking is contrary to the procedures she was taught in training.

Ms. Gilliam showed Ms. Johnson a student code of conduct excerpt that stated security personnel had the right to search students, as well as a section of the security guards’ training manual that mentioned proper ways and reasons to search students.

Ms. Johnson said she was instructed not to search students at the middle school, despite the fact that she was permitted to under the district’s policies.

Ms. Gilliam then called Billy Toliver, another security guard at the school who allegedly frisked Mr. Love. Mr. Toliver also said he had no knowledge of the search ever occurring, saying that Mr. Love was never suspected of selling drugs.

“He looked relatively quiet,” Mr. Toliver said, recalling Mr. Love during his time at the school. “He played a little basketball … he was just a regular kid.”

Ms. Gilliam asked if black parents ever complained that their kids were unfairly targeted. Mr. Toliver said he couldn’t recall any complaints.

Riverhead Middle School principal Andrea Pekar, the last witness of the day, confirmed that the district’s policy allows security guards to search and even frisk students.

But, she said, the practice is not allowed in her school.

“I will not put a security guard in that position,” she said. “It’s a responsibility they don’t need to have.”

Ms. Pekar repeatedly stated she had “no recollection” of calling Mr. Love into her office and searching him six years ago. She also said the school has no record of a search of Mr. Love.

When fielding questions from her lawyer, Ms. Pekar said the Love family didn’t contact the school about the alleged incident until two years after it allegedly happened, when the family took legal action against the co-defendants, claiming privacy and civil rights violations.

Three more witnesses will testify Wednesday, including then-assistant principal Stephen Hudson; Angela Devito, a school board member in 2007; and Willie Austin, another school security guard, Ms. Gilliam said in court.

psquire@timesreview.com