Students like 17-year-old Sarah Gack, who lives in a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, are required to memorize this holy document, with special focus on the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights is a noble, progressive document that seems to give Americans a variety of rights and protections while restricting government power. In reality, as Gack found out this March when she was a student at Silver Springs High School, the War on Drugs has superseded the Bill of Rights.
This article is Sarah’s story, the story of a young woman who believed what she was taught in civics class, who fought for freedom, and won.
Sarah Gack is typical of a new subculture of adolescent females, whose collective look, ideology and style has been called “grrrl power,” by media pundits. The “grrr” part of the moniker denotes the fact that these girls are not demure, not passive, not polishing their nails, worried about boys or dressing in pink.
Instead, they come across as hybrids of defiant male and female traits. They have quirky fashion sense, cut their hair short, work hard at whatever interests them, engage in extreme sports and reckless adventure. They want independence, a better world, freedom from rape and sexism. They don’t take shit from anybody. It’s like the bumper sticker says: Grrrl Power rules!
So when school authorities and a private company that trains drug-sniffing dogs and conducts drug searches stormed into Sarah’s school on March 10th, 1999, Sarah Gack got in touch with her grrrl power and hit back.
Sarah likes dogs. A bunch of her dogs slobbered and jumped all over me when I visited with her mom and her at their beautiful home near Nevada City, California. But she doesn’t like fascists or the dogs who serve them.
“They said that the kids and their teachers had to leave our backpacks and other stuff in the classrooms, and get out of the rooms, so the drug dog people could search our belongings with their goddam dogs,” Sarah recalls. “I immediately remembered what my teacher had taught us, Amendment Four in the Bill of Rights: ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall be issued, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ I knew immediately that what the school was doing violated the Constitution.”
Sarah and other students made verbal protests to the school’s principal and also hurled abuse at the dog handlers, who were employees of a private Texas company called Interquest.
“Kids tried to look in the classrooms to see what these idiots were doing, but school employees and workers for the drug dog company blocked the windows. They were looking through our clothing, hats, backpacks, jackets, gloves. We were saying ‘What kind of search is this? There are no witnesses. People we’ve never seen before are going through our personal belongings. You can plant stuff in our belongings and then bust us. There’s no due process. It’s a police state,'” she said.
The kids’ protests fell on deaf ears. Sarah says school authorities threatened students who exercised their free speech rights by protesting the searches. The search team took over the whole school. If dogs smelled something, teachers were forced to determine which student owned the suspect belongings and provide their names to administrators. Students were led away under guard toward interrogation chambers. After several hours of protests, fear and disruption, the drug dogs and their handlers left campus.
All that had been found was a bottle of prescription anti-depressants.
At lunchtime, more than a hundred students protested the dog search. Sarah, as president of the student body, watched with pleasure as her vice president took the flag down from the pole in front of the school – a symbolic protest meant to drive home the message that the American flag flies over liberty, not drug dog searches of imprisoned kids. Students vehemently told administrators that officials had violated their rights, betrayed their trust, and opened up a can of worms that would not easily be tidied up.
“It wasn’t just the kids either,” Sarah reports. “One of the coolest teachers, a long-term substitute, told the principal that the search was illegal. Another teacher said it was illegal, and objected to being forced to assist the dog company against his own students. And we were talking amongst ourselves about what had happened to individuals during the search, and finding out that for some kids, things had been pretty bad.”
Sarah says students told her they’d been touched by Interquest employees, school officials, and police, including a school secretary who was ordered to assist in pat-down searches of students identified by the dogs as likely drug couriers.
“It was totally unacceptable,” she says. “They had no warrant, no probable cause. They locked us out of our own classrooms. We are required by law to go to school, which is bad enough, but I don’t like being treated like a prisoner. I don’t think that having my stuff searched, and having people touch me, is what the school should be doing to me.”
Sarah’s mom, a health care specialist who’d earlier told me that “Sarah is like a bulldog when she believes injustice has been done,” said that Sarah knew how to channel her anger.
“I’ve always taught my kids if you see something wrong and you don’t like it, you have to do something about it,” she said. “I don’t like whiners and complainers. ‘Something isn’t right,’ I told her, ‘you do what you have to do to change it, and I’ll back you all the way.'”
Armed with indignation and her mom’s support, Sarah quickly organized a series of protests that culminated in a school board meeting during which 150 pissed-off parents, students and community members told board members and school officials that the searches had to stop.
“We used funds from the piggybank of the son of a former sheriff to pay for posters telling people to show up at the meeting, and we organized what we would say and do,” Sarah recalls. “We looked at the law, and investigated the taking away of kids’ rights in schools across the country.”
Sarah discovered that school districts routinely violate students’ civil rights, and that courts often rule that Americans under 18 have far fewer rights than adults. She noted that drug dogs, informants and illegal searches were commonly-used tactics, and that students and parents had begun to use lawsuits to fight back.
For example, in Galt, California, school officials and police placed a pudgy young female narc named Cherokee Miranda amongst students at the local high school. The narc allegedly slept with students, cajoled them into providing her with small amounts of marijuana, and then became the prime witness in dozens of felony arrests that outraged parents in the small farming community south of Sacramento.
Miranda even had the balls to have her photograph, real name and biographical information appear in a major article in the Sacramento Bee newspaper, in which she bragged about lying to kids, pretending to be their friend, and doing undercover narc work at several other California high schools. Galt parents have retained attorneys to file lawsuits about the busts, and across the country youngsters are fighting back against school officials and police who use strong-arm tactics.
Pressure and intimidation
At the school board meeting in Sarah’s district, board members sat in stunned silence as speaker after speaker vilified them.
“The board people were mute,” she reports. “One lady said to a school board member, ‘Open up your purse, let’s search your purse and see what’s in there. How about we bring some drug dogs into your house and businesses?’ Basically what we told them is that if they don’t stop this kind of shit, we will sue them.”
Official reaction was obfuscative, hostile and only marginally responsive to Sarah’s demands. The board changed its policy, stating that only lockers and cars in school parking lots could be searched.
Sarah says her principal knew that his job was on the line, and that he tried to intimidate her.
“He said that if I make another disturbance or cause any problems, they’ll be watching me, they’ll suspend me. He just wants kids to be like sheep, do whatever he tells them. And then they tried to bring the dogs back, and the assistant principal turned them away, and I knew we had made a little progress, and that I don’t have to be afraid of assholes,” she said.
Sarah freely admits to smoking marijuana since the age of 12. She and her mom emphasize that Sarah is a healthy, physically strong girl who does well in school, volunteers for community service, does swimming, softball, skateboarding, has lots of friends, holds jobs and is headed toward college and careers in law, politics and journalism.
“Some nerd got up at the board meeting and said she was glad they were trying to get rid of druggies because it’s hard for her to study when stoned people are in the classroom,” Sarah said. “She was all into the reefer madness crap. I really resent that. I am not a loser. I like pot because I get headaches sometimes and it helps me. I can concentrate better. It makes me friendlier and more fun with people. It makes me less of a bitch. A lot of people I know have been arrested for it, and I think it’s stupid. The cops and the judges hurt people a lot more than pot ever could.”
As she prepares for her final year of high school, Sarah suspects there are more battles ahead, battles which she is more than happy to fight.
“I don’t really think it’s about marijuana so much as about my right not to have stupid people trying to tell me what to do,” she says. “I don’t like that dog company coming here, and they get paid a bonus for every person that gets busted, so they have an incentive to plant evidence – we’re just captives for their business. I’m going to make sure they don’t come back. The kids are ready this time.”
Sarah’s kids will not be fighting alone: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently contacted Sarah, and she’ll soon be meeting with ACLU attorneys to discuss school policies and devise an action plan to ensure that the Bill of Rights applies to schoolkids.
“They always complain about teenagers, blame us for everything, and treat us like shit,” she says. “We are trying to figure that out, trying to believe in this country. If they want us to be good citizens, they have to be good citizens. My mom always told me, ‘Change starts with one person.’ I am that one person, and there are a lot of us, and we are going to make the changes.”