Federal judge tosses most charges against Riverhead schools

05/17/2013 1:00 PM |
Federal court in Centrai Islip

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

Only one defendant accused in a civil rights and privacy lawsuit over an alleged illegal search in Riverhead Middle School in 2007 is still facing charges after a federal judge threw out most of the case Thursday.

Judge Arthur Spatt made his decision to toss all but one of 10 charges in the civil case after determining the district’s student search policy is not illegal.

“There’s nothing wrong with the searches set forth in this policy,” Judge Spatt said from his bench in a U.S. Eastern District courtroom in Central Islip.

Allegations of discriminatory behavior were dismissed for all defendants after Judge Spatt said the student and his mother failed to prove the school targeted black students for questioning.

That leaves only Middle School principal Andrea Pekar remaining as the sole defendant to answer to a 4th Amendment allegation involving an illegal search.

Riverhead residents Tarone Love, 21, and his mother, Marilyn, had sued the district, then-superintendent Paul Doyle, the middle school, and the Board of Education for $2 million in damages. Mr. Love, a teenager at the time, was allegedly patted down by school security and accused of selling drugs in school without “reasonable suspicion,” the lawsuit claims.

They also accused the district of searching Mr. Love, an African-American, because of his race.

District officials, including Ms. Pekar, have maintained throughout the trial, which started with jury selection Monday, that the incident never occurred.

Recalling the incident, Mr. Love testified Thursday that he had run into two friends in the hallways of Riverhead Middle School on Feb. 15, 2007.

He said he paid back the first boy a dollar that Mr. Love had borrowed, and then gave the other student $5 to pay for snacks.

Mr. Love said he was pulled out of math class the next period and taken to the school’s principal’s office, where Ms. Pekar accused him of selling drugs to students after school officials saw him exchanging money.

A security guard then allegedly patted down Mr. Love, removed items from his pockets and made him take off his boots.

Mr. Love testified that no drugs were ever found and he was sent back to class.

The alleged event left him rattled, he said Thursday, and fostered his distrust and dislike of school authority.

“I felt violated,” Mr. Love said in court. “[Ms. Pekar] made me feel guilty even though I didn’t do anything. It’s still with me, that I was singled out for no apparent reason.”

Ms. Love had testified Wednesday that her son was shaking when he returned home from school that day, tearing up from the stand as she described what happened.

“He was hysterical” Ms. Love said. “It makes me upset every time I think about it.”

While on the stand, Ms. Love was asked by her attorney why she never contacted the school about the alleged search, only reaching out to them through a lawyer two years later.

“I didn’t contact the school because they didn’t contact me [about the incident],” she said. “They should have contacted me first.”

Mr. Love said he only continued going to school because of his mother’s support, saying he was humiliated and feared his classmates would treat him differently after he was taken out of class.

But after Mr. Love testified Thursday that he had respected authority before the alleged search, John Shields, the attorney for the defense, made Mr. Love review his prior disciplinary record for that school year.

As Mr. Shields went one-by-one through a list of eight recorded school infractions from that school year, Mr. Love admitted that on four of those occasions — all before the alleged search — he had disrespected authority.

Mr. Shields also pressed Mr. Love on his age at the time of the incident. Mr. Love had said he was 13 at the time , but Mr. Shields pointed out he would have been 15 when the incident happened, according to his birthdate.

When asked if he was actually 15 at the time of the alleged incident, Mr. Love paused for a moment.

“I can’t do math right now,” he said. “My mind is too cluttered.”

Mr. Love later stated that he dropped out of high school after spending two years in the ninth grade, and never finished.

He said he “couldn’t recall” whether the incident affected his grades.

Ms. Pekar, the two security guards who allegedly took part in the search, and a then-assistant principal at the school, Stephen Hudson, all said in their testimony this week that the search never happened.

Ms. Pekar also said Thursday that had a student been searched in her school in 2007, that student would have been asked to empty his or her pockets  — but no security guard would ever have reached into a student’s pockets.

“The number one reason is safety,” she said, describing how a student could have syringes, knives or box cutters in their pockets. “I would never put myself of any of my security guards in danger.”

After both sides finished giving their evidence, Mr. Shields moved to have all the illegal search charges dismissed Thursday, saying the Love family failed to prove the district’s policies over student searches were improper, meaning the district couldn’t be blamed for any alleged incident.

The family’s attorney, Harriet Gilliam, said the superintendent and school board were ultimately liable for the alleged improper actions of Ms. Pekar,  but Judge Spatt disagreed and threw out the illegal search court actions against all defendants but Ms. Pekar.

Mr. Shields then asked to have the discrimination part of the suit dismissed as well, adding there was no proof the district had targeted black students specifically.

“There’s been no expert, there’s been no data, there’s been nothing,” Mr. Shields told the judge.

One security guard, who is black and had worked in the middle school in 2007, testified this week that he had seen black, white, and Hispanic students searched in the school.

When asked by Judge Spatt what proof Ms. Gilliam had of discriminatory behavior, she responded Mr. Love would testify that one of the boys he gave money to, a light-skinned Hispanic student, was not searched while Mr. Love and his other friend, who is black, were searched.

But Judge Spatt said Mr. Love and his mother needed proof the Hispanic student was or was not searched. Ms. Gilliam had not called either of the other two students as witnesses in the case, and had only put the black student on a pre-trial list of potential witnesses.

Ms. Gilliam answered that she could bring in those students to testify.

But Judge Spatt said it was too late.

He then threw out all of the discrimination charges, saying it was “totally improper” to call more witnesses after the trial was over, especially ones the defense team was not aware of, and had not prepared for.

“We’re not going to bring in someone from left field like that,” he said.

After court proceedings, Ms. Gilliam said in an interview she felt the district should have been held liable in this case, and that she was still hopeful Ms. Pekar would be found guilty.

“[I hope] at the very least, principals are held accountable … they can’t just do what they want to do,” she said.

Mr. Shields declined to comment about the case, saying he could not discuss ongoing litigation.

The jury will reconvene Monday morning to begin deliberations on a verdict.

psquire@timesreview.com

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