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Looking alienated? Beware.


At the end of a horrifying school year, questions linger about how Michigan schools can prevent bloodbaths similar to those in Conyers, Ga., and Littleton, Colo.

A state Senate task force is compiling information from law enforcement, schools and other sources for a report schools can use to initiate or improve safety programs.

However, amid the efforts to address school violence, there’s been little discussion about the civil rights of students. "There’s a tendency to react at the expense of civil liberties whenever there’s fear or a great tragedy such as the one at Columbine," says Michael Steinberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan.

Steinberg says the ACLU’s state office in Detroit has received at least a dozen complaints of students being suspended without due process. He says other ACLU branches throughout the state have received similar complaints.

According to Steinberg, most of the calls have involved "students who wear alternative styles of clothing or listen to alternative music and express themselves in a way that’s different than most other students."

Steinberg says protections regarding free speech and unreasonable search and seizure are weaker in schools than on the street. Outside schools, he says, police must obtain a warrant to search personal property, but a school administrator needs only to have a reasonable suspicion that a student is carrying contraband to conduct a search.

Debra Gutierrez, an attorney with the state appellate defender’s office in Detroit who has also worked in the juvenile offender office in Wayne County, says she’s been hearing of more and more cases in which students have been suspended based only on idle talk.

At Detroit’s Cass Technical High School last month, graffiti interpreted to be threatening brought out police who, according to the group Students for Equality in Education, searched students and confiscated cell phones and pagers.

As to programs that address problems underlying violence, Michigan schools appear to vary widely.

Patty Hertrich, spokeswoman for Senate task force chair Sen. Joanne Emmons, says the task force sent surveys to schools throughout Michigan asking for information on safety programs. Hertrich says roughly 100 of the surveys have been returned.

"Some schools have nothing and some schools have very comprehensive programs," Hertrich says.

Hertrich says the task force hopes to help to define the function of the Department of Education’s newly established Office of Safe Schools.

Asked about considerations involving students’ civil rights, Hertrich says, "The task force isn’t really focusing on that. This is such a monumental task, and there’s a lot of good things going on."

Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss says she urges schools to use the recent high-profile instances of school violence to teach students about conflict resolution and the limits of free speech rights.

"Students need to understand that if what they’re saying could be interpreted as being a serious threat, there’s the potential of their facing serious consequences," she says.

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