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Playing Politics at School | The Nation

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Playing Politics at School

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The passage of HR 5295 was an expedited affair. On September 19, the Student and Teacher Safety Act of 2006 went to the floor of the House of Representatives without a hearing or vote in committee and was passed by a voice vote of the two dozen or so Representatives in the chamber at the time. "School officials should have the authority to handle potentially dangerous situations and take the steps necessary to intervene when the safety of our children is in jeopardy," said House majority leader John Boehner, praising Kentucky Republican Geoff Davis, the bill's author, in a statement released the same day. But because there was no roll call, there is no way of knowing whether Boehner or the seventeen Republicans who joined Davis as co-sponsors actually turned up for the vote.

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Hasdai Westbrook
Hasdai Westbrook is a contributing editor at The Brooklynite and a former editor of New Voices magazine. His writing...

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The legislation would mandate that all school districts adopt policies empowering searches for weapons and narcotics. Those that fail to do so would be stripped of funds from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 2002, used by schools for programs to combat drugs and violence. Supporters say the law is necessary to keep drugs away from children and to address "the recent trend in escalating school violence." But critics claim the bill is a political stunt designed to make Republicans look tough on school safety and to give Davis a legislative achievement to tout in his close re-election race against Democratic challenger Ken Lucas. A broad group of opponents--including

Congressional Democrats, the National Parent Teacher Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Civil Liberties Union and Students for Sensible Drug Policy--argue the bill is unnecessary and may jeopardize students' constitutional rights.

On the morning of November 5, 2003, police officers burst into Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, forcing students to the ground at gunpoint and putting some as young as 14 in handcuffs as a drug-sniffing dog tore through their book bags. The raid, initiated by the principal on suspicion that a particular student was suspected of dealing marijuana in the hallways, went ahead even though the student was known to be absent from school that day. No drugs or weapons were found in the sweep of nearly 150 students, of whom more than two-thirds were African-American at a school where African-Americans make up less than a quarter of the student body. Caught on school surveillance and police cameras, the incident provoked a national outcry including a demonstration led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Civil liberties advocates fear that the Davis bill will encourage similar tactics. "The intent here is to broaden the powers that school officials have to search students," says Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "One of the foundational aspects of the Fourth Amendment is individualized suspicion--that you have done wrong, not that wrong has been done.... This legislation is quite mischievous because it purports to tell school officials that they can search whole groups of students."

During the floor debate on his bill, Davis denied this charge: "This act does not issue a blank check to anyone to conduct random, unfounded or mass searches. It does not change the Fourth Amendment standards on search and seizure." But Democrats disagree. "We must do everything possible to keep our schools safe and drug free," says Ohio Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich. "But we cannot suspend the Constitution." (Davis's office did not respond to requests for comment).

Supporters say the bill provides much-needed clarity. "The legislation simply clarifies what's already in the case law and gives a floor to what kind of policies school districts should have," says Shilpa Reddy, lobbyist for the National Education Association, which endorsed the bill. Conversely, Steven Crawford, superintendent of schools for Byng, Oklahoma, believes those behind the legislation are simply posturing. "We already have policies and requirements at a state level that are thorough and complete. We don't need the strong-arming of the federal government on this issue," says Crawford. "This is just a hot-button topic of the day for them. School shootings are in the newspapers, so they think 'we'll make 'em do something'.... But schools already go to great lengths to maintain safety. Most schools are safer than Wal-Mart."

Other critics go further, claiming that Davis was desperate for a legislative victory to court voters in his district, where opinion polls have him locked in a statistical dead-heat with Lucas. "[Davis] clearly wants a piece of legislation that lets him say that he stands for school safety," says Mary Kusler, assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators. "This is typical in an election year--we see legislation passed with fancy titles that isn't substantial policy."

Perhaps just as typically, Democrats and other opponents have charged Republicans with hypocrisy on school safety. Not only does Davis's bill put at stake the very money schools use to keep students and teachers safe, Congressional Republicans also cut those same funds by 20 percent--more than $90 million--in the 2006 fiscal year and are proposing cutting another $36 million this year. In a bizarre budgetary twist President Bush is proposing eliminating the funding for Safe and Drug-Free School Grants altogether in 2007, while Davis's bill calls for any noncompliant schools to lose this funding after 2008. So if Bush and his allies get their way, Davis's legislation would end up threatening school districts with the loss of nonexistent funds. To date, Davis appears to have made no public statement opposing Bush's proposal.

The Congressman's mind may be elsewhere, however. Made up largely of affluent Cincinnati suburbs, his district in Kentucky is considered the most staunchly Republican in the state. But Davis's controversial attacks on Democrats, his ties to disgraced Republican Congressmen and the nationwide impact of the Mark Foley scandal have made the single-term incumbent one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House.

In November of last year Davis sparked outrage when he accused liberals and Democrats of siding with Al Qaeda. Responding to Congressman John Murtha's call for withdrawal from Iraq, Davis declared: "[Al Qaeda's leaders] have brought the battlefield to the halls of Congress. And, frankly, the liberal leadership have put politics ahead of sound fiscal and national security policy. And what they have done is cooperated with our enemies and are emboldening our enemies." Inspired by the ensuing backlash, the national Democratic Party recruited Lucas--a former three-term incumbent who beat Davis in 2002 but declined to run in 2004--to take on his successor.

Democrats have also seized on Davis's campaign funds as an election issue. Aided by appearances from both President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, Davis has a significant lead in fundraising, but contributions to his campaign include a $10,000 donation from the Americans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (ARMPAC), once led by recently ousted House majority leader Tom DeLay, who is under indictment in Texas for violation of campaign finance laws. Davis also received donations from former Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, convicted of mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery for taking money and gifts from defense contractors, and Congressman Bob Ney, convicted of conspiracy and making false statements in relation to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. Unlike many other Representatives, Davis has chosen not to give back the money.

Lucas has been quick to make electoral hay of Davis's connections to corrupt Republicans, as well as the scandal that has erupted over Republican Congressman Mark Foley's sexually explicit text messages and e-mails to Congressional pages. He recently called on Davis to "put politics aside" and join him in demanding House Speaker Dennis Hastert's resignation over his failure to keep the high-school-aged pages safe from Foley. Davis has so far declined the invitation. As he and his colleagues trumpet their achievements on children's safety on the campaign trail, his bill remains stalled in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Opponents like Steven Crawford are hoping that is where it will stay. "It's a waste of our time and their time," says Crawford. "It won't make schools safer at all."

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