Student's father sues over school officer's search

Posted: November 08, 2011

The father of a 13-year-old girl who alleges she was inappropriately touched by a Philadelphia School District police officer during a pat-down for weapons filed suit against district officials in federal court Monday.

The male officer allegedly stuck his hand down the girl's shirt and touched her chest during the two-hour search in an auditorium full of students at Harding Middle School on Oct. 24, according to the suit.

Other students also were searched at the Frankford school, including another girl who had a different male officer stick his hand down her shirt, the suit said.

The suit comes as the Philadelphia school police force finds itself under fire for too little training and lax hiring and screening practices for officers, some of whom also have arrest records and discipline problems on the job, an Inquirer investigation found.

Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said last week that he plans to recommend to the district that training and hiring and screening practices for the more than 400 school police officers be upgraded.

Like city police officers, he said, they should get 32 hours of training compared with the current four, be screened for drugs, and undergo psychological testing.

District officials said they had not seen the suit and declined comment, as is customary in the cases of lawsuits. The district's acting superintendent, Leroy Nunery II, and chief inspector Myron Patterson, who leads the school police, were named in the suit, as was school principal Michael Calderone.

The Inquirer is withholding the name of the girl and her father. By policy, the paper does not identify victims in cases where improper touching is alleged.

A report last year by Safe Havens, a safety consulting firm, also has criticized school police for their search and pat-down methods, calling the searches "invasive" and saying they likely would not stand a court challenge. The group evaluated safety operations in the district's most dangerous schools.

It also noted that female officers failed to use the backs of their hands when searching, which is standard procedure.

"The analysts also noted that many of these pat down searches were also poorly executed because officers missed significant portions of the areas to be searched," the report said.

Eight school police officers - six male and two female - were in the room, along with teachers, the suit said. None were named.

Lawyer Michael Pileggi said his client told him that the search was being conducted because school officials believed a student might have brought a BB gun to school.

According to the suit, the girl was ushered into the auditorium with about 100 students as the school day began. Row by row, students were asked to come forward where they and their belongings were searched by metal detector and then by hand.

The girl said the officer searched her body with the detector wand, which revealed no evidence of a weapon. He then "physically patted down the plaintiff touching her inappropriately," the suit said. The officer "placed his hand down plaintiff's shirt and felt around her chest area."

She then was allowed to leave and head to class.

The search, the suit said, was conducted without probable cause and violated the student's civil and constitutional rights. Her parents weren't notified, it said.

"At no time did plaintiff commit any illegal acts or engage in any conduct, which in any way justified the actions of all defendants," the suit said.

The search caused the girl to suffer "serious mental anguish, psychological and emotional distress, and pain and suffering," the suit said.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

 

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