District Won't Release Videos Of School Raid

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Officials Cite Federal, State Laws

Berkeley County school officials are refusing to release surveillance
camera recordings from the Stratford High School drug sweep, footage that
Solicitor Ralph Hoisington said Friday shows police pointing guns directly
at students and handcuffing them in a stairwell for no apparent reason.

The district's refusal to release the information to the public is a
reversal of its position immediately after the raid.

At that time, it allowed WCSC-Channel 5 to record images from several of
the roughly 70 cameras throughout the school. The district also allowed The
Post and Courier to view some surveillance recordings.

The images recorded by Channel 5, which showed officers bursting into a
hallway with guns drawn, triggered national attention after they were
broadcast and published.

Now, Berkeley County school officials are refusing to release images from
certain cameras that were never shown to reporters but were provided to
State Law Enforcement Division investigators reviewing the raid.

The images may shed light on questions still lingering six weeks after the
controversial search.

For example, in its official report of the raid, Goose Creek police said
officers restrained 10 to 12 students "solely due to the fact that they
failed to comply with officer instructions."

But footage from "camera 11," located in a stairwell, shows a group of
students holding their hands behind their heads and lying on the ground,
said Hoisington, who has seen the surveillance video. "They were being
compliant."

The footage then shows an officer "picking up about six of them, strapping
them and then putting them back down in the same position they were,"
Hoisington said.

Release of the surveillance footage also could help settle whether Goose
Creek police actually pointed guns at students.

Images initially released to the public from a surveillance camera in the
main hall appear to show officers pointing guns at students when they first
entered the hall. Some have questioned whether the camera's angle gave a
distorted view of how officers actually carried their guns. But Hoisington
said footage from another camera in an area near vending machines shows
otherwise.

"When the officers come in on this, they are literally pointing straight at
students, sweeping the gun across them, two different officers."

In its report, Goose Creek police said, "several officers unholstered their
weapons and positioned them at the low ready position. This was done as
more of a defensive precaution ..., primarily due to the unfortunate fact
that drugs and money often mean that there is a real propensity for weapon
involvement."

Hoisington said the school district supplied the footage from these cameras
and others to SLED. He recently sent SLED's findings to the S.C. Attorney
General and U.S. Justice Department. He declined to prosecute the case,
citing a conflict of interest.

Earlier this week, The Post and Courier asked the Berkeley County School
District for access to all footage delivered to SLED, including images from
the camera aimed at the stairwell.

In a letter Friday, the district declined to release the materials.

Doing so would violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy
Act, which generally prohibits the district from releasing personally
identifiable information about students, and the state Freedom of
Information Act, the district's letter said.

The district cited language in the state act that says certain information
can be withheld if information is "of a personal nature" and that
disclosure would "constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy."

It also cited a state statute defining education records to include
videotape with personally identifiable characteristics of students.

Hoisington questioned why district officials are declining to release the
images now when they released other tapes immediately after the incident.
"It's already out there," he said of images of the search.

Police and school officials decided to sweep through the school after
seeing suspicious activity on the school's video cameras over several
mornings. More than 107 students were detained during the search. Using a
drug-sniffing dog, officers and school officials searched students'
belongings. No drugs were found.

A couple of weeks after the raid, a group of more than 100 teachers and
students rallied outside Stratford High in support of principal George
McCrackin.

A group of students and parents, meanwhile, are suing school and district
officials, saying their constitutional rights were violated.


Pubdate: Sat, 13 Dec 2003
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Webpage: http://www.charleston.net/stories/121303/loc_13stratford.shtml
Copyright: 2003 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Contact: letters@postandcourier.com
Website: http://www.charleston.net/