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News - Pre-emptive strike hits high schools

What was good for Iraq is great for kids at Stratford High

Alcohol, drugs, fights, sex and smoking. None are new to American high schools. The Blackboard Jungle, a 1954 novel by Evan Hunter and a hugely successful motion picture the next year, was widely recognized as a realistic depiction of the dark side of high school life in big-city America.

While today's school officials and the parents of teenage students know such problems continue to plague our nation's schools a half-century later, and while most agree that authorities must be tough in meeting the challenges presented by the threats to students' well-being, there was something deeply disturbing about the images of a Nov. 5 drug raid on Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C.

The official inquiry into the raid is ongoing. But few who have seen the closed-circuit TV images are neutral about what happened. The now widely reproduced black-and-white video shows police barging into the school with guns drawn and pointed at students. We see dozens of students lying prone in the school's hallways with armed officers clearly shouting at them to "get down and put your hands up" while searching vainly for the drugs that were the justification for the raid in the first place.

The good news is that no student was killed or injured by any quick-draw officer's accident or overreaction. The bad news is that the incident illustrates the degree to which America is now gripped by a climate of fear and overreaction. It also bears testimony to the unbridled power with which our society has clothed government, both local and national.

A recent follow-up article on the incident notes the raid was prompted by "suspicious activity." Hmm. In high schools, whether in 2003 or 1954, there's an awful lot of activity that goes on in hallways that would fall into the category of "suspicious." If such activity now provides the predicate for SWAT-type raids, then be prepared for the Great Stratford High School Raid of 2003 to become commonplace.

Is nothing to be placed in rational perspective anymore? Is the term "measured response" no longer a part of our vocabulary?

A police raid on a school, with guns drawn despite scant evidence, represents an effort to "be proactive" in creating a "safe environment" for students, in the words of the local school superintendent, Chester Floyd. One shudders to contemplate what a televised record of an "aggressive" approach would reveal.

The same recent article quoted the school's principal, George McCrackin, who called in the cops, but had "no idea they would come in with guns unholstered." Come on, George. In today's environment, in which even the most vague hint of a possible problem communicated to law enforcement becomes a federal case, what did you expect? Barney Fife? Get real. You got exactly what you asked for.

Some parents of the students at Stratford are showing their support for McCracken in such intellectually impressive ways as urging motorists to "honk if they supported McCracken." But other parents are expressing concern — and rightfully so. They also should ask themselves if the incident isn't merely the logical result of the over-reactive mentality that has given rise to such goings on in our schools as conducting intrusive tests of high school students for tobacco. That's right: Not only are schools now testing for mind-altering drugs, a step that can properly be justified because of the danger that use of such substances by students poses to those around them, but we have now entered the era in which parents have allowed school officials to conduct random tests for cigarette smoking.

Oh, and by the way, when they're not testing students for drugs, alcohol, tobacco and, I suppose pretty soon, caffeine, school officials are disciplining kids for what they're saying to friends on their personal computers, after school hours and from their homes. Or, for what they write in their diaries.

Is it really any wonder that school officials — empowered by parents to invade students' privacy to the extent of testing them for smoking cigarettes (whether on or off school property, and regardless of whether such horrible activity takes place during school hours or not), and reading their private e-mails after school hours — feel they're within their rights to order a SWAT raid on students?

We also should ask what all this is teaching our youngsters. That government power can properly be exercised arbitrarily? That the best reaction is an overreaction? That you raid first and ask questions later? That a pre-emptive strike is the best course of action? That we always stand by what our government does, regardless of how egregious the violation of our liberties? That measured responses and reasonable reactions are things of the past?

Then again, I guess it really doesn't matter. Because, after all, this is precisely what those same kids see their government doing on a regular basis since 9-11.

bob.barr@creativeloafing.com

During his years in Congress, Bob Barr represented many parents, students, teachers and even principals from Georgia schools.





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