Ruben Benites was strolling on the grounds of Union City’s James Logan High School with a classmate during lunch one Friday when suddenly two police officers grabbed them both from behind, pushed them to the ground, and escorted them into a classroom. “I didn’t even know what or why or nothing,” recalls the fourteen-year-old, “and I felt scared ’cause I didn’t do nothing.”
On February 22, Benites and roughly fifty of his peers were rounded up by school officials and Union City cops. Herded into two classrooms, the students were detained for several hours as they were questioned, searched for weapons and gang paraphernalia, and then photographed against a dry-erase board. Before being allowed to return to class, they were lectured and warned that wearing gang colors would result in suspension. Their photos, the principal says, are being maintained by the police department.
It was by no means the first time a high school had taken antigang measures — many schools forbid students from wearing clothing and accessories that signal gang affiliation. But a broad preemptive strike involving law enforcement is highly unusual, and it infuriated some parents who claim their kids were swept up even though they weren’t involved in gangs. Benites, for one, admits he has gang-member friends, but insists that he’s not a gang member himself.
Although the sweep occurred in February, it continues to be a source of tension between school principal Don Montoya and a handful of families who believe their children’s rights were violated. With the help of civil rights groups and youth advocates, these parents have formed a group called Families for Youth Rights. In recent months, they’ve attended city council and school board meetings, demanding answers to why their kids were detained and searched before any rules had been broken.
Montoya says gang tensions at the school in the preceding weeks and a rumor that a fight was to take place that day spurred administrators and police to act. According to the principal, a new gang that had formed in prior years at Alvarado Middle School was trying to establish itself. The week of the sweep, the gang — a multiethnic Asian group calling itself the Horny Boys — twice had words with established Latino rival Decoto 14 in the cafeteria, resulting in one fight.
The groups also confronted one another off campus twice that week, Montoya says, including the evening prior to the sweep when up to seventy young people gathered in a park before the police shooed them away. So Logan disciplinarians and Union City cops simply scooped up everyone sitting in the two areas of the cafeteria where suspected gang members eat lunch. “I said, ‘I’m not saying any of you are gang members,'” Montoya recalls. “‘What we know is that some of you were involved in facing off earlier this week, and we’re here to tell you it’s not acceptable and has to stop now.'”
Parents charge that the sweep was racially discriminatory, since most of the kids were either Latino or Asian. (Logan’s 4,300-student population is 28 percent Latino and 40 percent Asian, nearly half of those Filipino.) “It had nothing to do with ethnicity. It had to do with location,” Montoya says.
Ruben Benites says he wasn’t in either of the locations the administration targeted. He was walking in front of the school. The kids’ parents don’t entirely buy Montoya’s claims, either. “When ninety percent of the kids were Asian or Latino, it sounds racial to me,” says Ron Prentice of Families for Youth Rights. His daughter Jessica, who is white, received an on-campus suspension for having a red bandanna in her pocket — Decoto 14 wears red, while the Horny Boys wear blue and green. Several weeks later, Jessica was suspended for several days for wearing a red T-shirt, a punishment she finds particularly unfair since red is also one of Logan’s school colors and one she happens to favor.
“I think it’s disturbing that they make a threat to these students that if you wear red you’re going to be suspended,” says Lenore Anderson, who has taken up the cause of the students. Anderson is director of Books Not Bars, a youth-focused nonprofit opposed to the rapid growth of the penal system. “It gives the administration an opportunity to say ‘We’ve had a problem with you in the past,'” she says.
Although the courts have ruled that students can expect to give up some rights while on campus, administrators must still have reasonable suspicion that kids are violating the law or breaking school rules before they can be searched, says Ann Brick, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. If not, then the kids’ Fourth Amendment rights have been violated. Police, she adds, must abide by the same standards at a school as they would on the street. “The students were treated as if every one of them was a suspect, and there was no basis for that suspicion,” Brick says.
Lieutenant Rod Romano, a spokesman for the police department, declined to comment on the sweep, citing pending litigation. No suit has yet been filed, although the ACLU helped the parents file paperwork with the city and New Haven Unified School District that would be required should they decide to sue in the future.
Prentice says the families involved may consider suing as a last resort, but notes that they really just want the police to relinquish their children’s photographs and offer some assurances that such broad sweeps won’t occur in the future. Benites and Jessica Prentice fear the photos might be used against them. “They told me they were going to use it later on if they found me in gang activities,” says Benites.
Lt. Romano wouldn’t say how the cops planned to use the photos, but did note that the department doesn’t keep a gang database. The state maintains a statewide gang database, he says, but the students were not entered into it. “I was told they were in a binder,” says Montoya of the photos. “If an officer pulled someone over for making an illegal left turn, an officer isn’t going to be able to access a binder from his vehicle.”
The principal considers his sweep a success. Gang tensions have died down, and only two students were suspended as a result, he says. “We felt we needed to give everyone the same message rather than just three or four. If fifty students were facing off and we got four, I don’t think we’ve delivered the proper message.”
But Jessica Prentice, who had never been in trouble before the sweep, says students would have understood the message if the school had simply increased the number of officers on campus that day; the school is normally patrolled by just one cop.
“They don’t know me at all. They just go in and assume things. It just sucks because they’re labeling people,” she says. She estimates that half the kids swept up were probably in gangs, but the rest were not.
Sure, Prentice — like Benites — has friends in gangs. But to her, they’re just the same kids she’s grown up with. “I can’t even hang out with people I’ve known since second grade?” she asks, incredulous.