Riverhead principal cleared in civil rights case

Riverhead Middle School in court
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Riverhead Middle School principal Andrea Pekar and her attorney, John Shields, shake hands outside federal court Monday after a jury ruled Ms. Pekar was not guilty of illegally searching a middle school student in 2007.

A federal jury has rejected a former Riverhead Middle School student’s claims that he was illegally searched by the school’s principal in 2007, saying the student and his mother failed to prove the search ever occurred.

The jury deliberated for three hours in U.S. Eastern District Court Monday before reaching a verdict.

Tarone Love, now 21, and his mother, Marilyn, had filed a lawsuit against the principal, Andrea Pekar, as well as the school district, middle school, Board of Education and then-superintendent Paul Doyle.

They alleged that Mr. Love was called to the principal’s office in February 2007, made to empty his pockets, patted down and forced to remove his shoes. Mr. Love had claimed the school targeted him because administrators thought he was selling drugs.

Throughout the trial, district officials have consistently denied the incident happened.

As the jury’s verdict was read, Ms. Pekar sat with her hands over her mouth. She nodded and relaxed in her seat as the verdict was announced.

Mr. Love, seated at the plaintiff’s table with his lawyer, Harriet Gilliam, sat motionless and didn’t move until the jury was led out of the room. He quickly left the court room and declined to comment on the verdict.

John Shields, the defense attorney for Ms. Pekar, said he was “confident” in the jury’s deliberations.

“I think the jury made the right decision,” he said. “It was a privilege to represent a person of such high character.”

The claims against all defendants except Ms. Pekar had been thrown out of court Friday, after Judge Arthur Spatt ruled the Love family had not proven the district’s policies were in violation of the law.

Additional claims of racial profiling were also dismissed.

The jury began deliberations about 12:25 p.m. after hearing closing arguments from both attorneys in the case. Ms. Gilliam questioned the testimony of security guards and Ms. Pekar — all of whom said they either didn’t remember the search or that it never happened.

Ms. Gilliam said the school was engaging in a “cover-up,” while Mr. Shields said the family offered no proof of the search, and said it was unlikely the district would have gone to such lengths to mask the supposed incident.

Outside the court room, Ms. Love said she and her son had filed the suit to expose wrongdoings in the Riverhead schools.

“We weren’t here for the money,” she said. “We were here for the kids in the school … In a way, [Tarone] didn’t lose, because he opened the eyes of so many parents.”

Ms. Gilliam, a Riverhead High School graduate, said she had “bittersweet” feelings about the verdict.

“I’m very proud of Tarone,” she said. “He stood up and took a stand.”

Ms. Gilliam said the family may file an appeal, adding she would need to speak to her clients.

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