Civil rights trial involving Riverhead schools begins

The family of a former Riverhead Middle School student is alleging district officials illegally searched their son in 2007, and is seeking $2 million in damages in a civil rights lawsuit set to go to jury trial in federal court this week, according to court documents.

The suit, filed by the former student’s mother, Marilyn Love, alleges the school violated the student’s fourth and fourteenth amendment rights by subjecting him to an unreasonable search “based on his race as an African American.”

In February 2007, Ms. Love’s son — who is a plaintiff but is not identified in the complaint due to his age at the time of the incident — was pulled out of his eighth grade class by a district security guard, according to the suit. He was brought to the principal’s office, where he was accused of selling drugs in school because he was seen giving money to two students that morning, the suit states.

The student denied the claims and was searched. School officials did not find any drugs, and warned him not to sell any on district grounds, according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Love and her son claim the district didn’t have “reasonable grounds” to search him, and did not search the other student who was seen talking to Ms. Love’s son, according to the suit. That student who was not searched is white.

The Riverhead School District, Board of Education, district superintendent at the time Paul Doyle, and Middle School principal Andrea Pekar, are all named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Several others, including Angela Devito, a former school board member, appear on a list of potential witnesses in the trial.

District officials could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Love also alleges in the suit that the school did not tell her that her son had been removed from class to be searched and did not properly train employees to search students.

Jury selection in the case began at Eastern District Court in Central Islip Monday and opening statements are expected Tuesday.

The student is now 20 years old, said Harriet Gilliam, the attorney for Ms. Love and her son.

As a result of the search, the student “suffered emotional harm, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, damage to his good name and reputation and loss of enjoyment of life,” according to court documents.

“I would say, certainly, it’s had a long-term effect on him as far as his outlook through school and of school administrators,” Ms. Gilliam said. “Instead of him seeing them as people who are there to help and have them provide a nurturing environment, he instead had an experience of seeing them in a different light [by accusing him and searching him]. He’s jaded. He came away having a bad taste in his mouth.”

Ms. Gilliam said there were discussions with the district and other co-defendants to settle out of court but “there was nothing really of substance in terms of any offer.”

The case has taken so long to get to trial because of various motions made by the district’s lawyers to have the case dismissed, Ms. Gilliam added.

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