Students in Kent County School Drug Sweep Case Win Landmark Settlement

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
August 6, 2007 12:00 am

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KENT COUNTY, MD – Three years after taking a courageous stand against excessive police action at their public high school, two young women from Kent County have won what the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is calling the most significant settlement of a school search case in Maryland history – including $285,000 in monetary damages and written apologies from both the school system and Sheriff’s Department.

In 2004, Heather Gore and Jessica Bedell were among 18 Kent County High School students subjected to an illegal, unconstitutional, and warrantless, investigative drug sweep during which drug-sniffing dogs were deployed, students’ bags were unlawfully seized and searched, and humiliating bodily searches were performed on students without any reasonable or just cause. The ACLU filed suit on the girls’ behalf in November 2005. The case was brought in partnership with pro bono attorneys from Dickstein, Shapiro LLP.

“When you live in a small town and everyone knows everyone else, it can be hard to stand up for yourself,” said Ms. Gore, who was 15 when she was subjected to an intrusive strip search during the drug sweep. “Hopefully, this experience will help students realize that they can defend their rights, and also see that there are people to support and help vindicate them even in situations where it seems as though you’re taking on the impossible.” Ms. Gore plans to attend college and pursue a degree in History, with the goal of becoming a History teacher.

On April 16, 2004, Kent County High School Principal Gordon Sampson invited the County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a “lockdown” of the school. During this lockdown, officers under the direction of Sheriff John Price IV conducted a warrantless search and seizure of students and student property, without the students’ consent or the consent of their parents. Drug detecting dogs were used to sniff backpacks and other student belongings, and some of the bags were subsequently searched by hand. None of the bag searches turned up any contraband. Nonetheless, Officer Marcellene Beck subjected Ms. Gore to a very intrusive and humiliating strip search. Officer Beck also conducted an aggressive bodily search of Ms. Bedell.

The lawsuit – which was filed in Kent County Circuit Court – contended that the actions of the school and law enforcement officials violated students’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Constitution, and state law, as well as state and local educational rules and regulations governing the conduct of school searches. The school system quickly expressed regret at the scope of the sweep, and no similar searches have occurred since in Kent County schools. But the Sheriff all along has resisted admitting errors and responsibility. Nonetheless, the settlement makes clear that the students were innocent of any wrongdoing.

“I’m very happy with the school’s cooperation and apology, which makes me hopeful that it will not happen again to anyone,” said Ms. Bedell, who was 16 when she was wrongfully searched by a Sheriff’s Deputy during the drug sweep. “I also feel relieved, because it is nice to know that the legal system does work the way it is supposed to and that the issue could be resolved without going to court.” Ms. Bedell now attends Salisbury University, and will graduate in December 2007 with a degree in Political Science. She hopes to go on to attend law school.

“Justice has finally been found – thanks to Heather and Jessi’s willingness to take a stand on behalf of all students,” said Deborah A. Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. “We hope this settlement sends a clear message to school administrators and police officials that while pursuing a safe learning environment for all students, we cannot sacrifice each individual’s right to be treated with dignity and due process.”

The school system has agreed to pay $67,500 to Ms. Gore and $57,500 to Ms. Bedell, and also has issued an official apology that recognizes that neither student had illegal substances, nor had violated any law or regulation, when the wrongful searches took place. The Sheriff’s Department has agreed to pay $160,000, to be shared between the two young women. In addition, the police defendants have agreed to issue a statement of regret. (See below for text of the apologies). Both young women intend to use funds from the settlement toward their higher education expenses.

“It was an honor for Dickstein Shapiro to have represented two such outstanding and courageous young ladies,” said Joseph Tydings, special counsel at Dickstein Shapiro and attorney for the young women. “Heather and Jessi persevered through difficult and emotionally draining proceedings, during the course of which they were often forced to endure harsh and hostile questioning. The ladies have now been thoroughly vindicated and because of their courage, daughters and granddaughters not only in Kent County, but throughout Maryland and the United States, should be safe from unconstitutional strip searches in the future.”

The case was handled by the Maryland ACLU and pro bono attorneys Joseph D. Tydings, Barry J. Fleishman, Christopher F. Branch, Vivek Chopra, Carolyne A. Sanin, John C. Snodgrass and Christopher L. LaFon, of the Washington, D.C. law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro LLP.

Apology of the Kent County School Board

“The Kent County School Board (“Board”) regrets the events that took place on April 16, 2004 involving the searches of Heather Gore and Jessica Bedell at Kent County High School. The Board acknowledges that Ms. Gore and Ms. Bedell were not found to be in possession of any illegal substances, or in violation of any law or regulation, and that mistakes were made that resulted in the partial strip search of Ms. Gore and the bodily search of Ms. Bedell. The Board apologizes to Ms. Gore and Ms. Bedell for any discomfort, embarrassment, adverse educational impact, or any other harm that they suffered as a result of the events of April 16, 2004, and wishes only the best of success to them in their future endeavors.”

Apology of the Kent County Sheriff’s Office

“The Kent County Sheriff’s Office (“Sheriff’s Office”) regrets the events and circumstances involved in the April 16, 2004 search of Heather Gore and Jessica Bedell at the Kent County High School. The Sheriff’s Office acknowledges that Ms. Gore and Ms. Bedell were not found to be in possession of any illegal substances, or in violation of any law or regulation on the day of the search.”

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