1925 Magdalena Avenue, Eastlake
Two young women were chatting as they walked around the track during P.E. at Olympian High School on Friday, September 13. It was third period and no doubt both 14-year-olds, were looking forward to the weekend. (Because of their age, the girls will only be identified by their first initials — J. and T.)
A golf cart suddenly pulled up beside the girls with a security guard and the assistant principal, Brahim Wahib, in it. T. related in an October 3 interview with the Reader that Wahib, addressing her by her last name, said, “Get in the cart.”
As the cart drove away, Wahib asked T. if that was her friend she was walking with and then sent the security guard to bring J. to the girls’ locker room as well.
J.’s account to the Reader on September 26 continues the narrative: “He [Wahib] asked what I did this morning. He asked, ‘Were you with T. [her friend]? Did you and T. see anybody?' Did you and T. see any girl with, like, balloons and stuff? I said, ‘No.’ Then he said, ‘Did you bump [physically] into anybody this morning?’… He said, ‘The reason I am asking is because someone said you and T. stole their wallet and we’re checking if you have the wallet or not.'”
Later in the day, the girls’ parents would learn the suspects had been identified to the school administration as “two African-American girls” who were allegedly following the victim.
Wahib told the girls the wallet was stolen at 7:15. J. is dropped off by her father at 7:20 and T. rides the bus. They meet up before school. They explained to Wahib that they did not steal a wallet and they were not on the grounds when the wallet was stolen.
J. said that Wahib told her they had to do the search because of the report and then the physical education teacher, who was also present, searched the girls’ bags.
According to J., after the search, Wahib told the girls, “'Well, I don’t think you guys did it because you guys look too innocent but we’re just checking just to make sure.’ Then he told us he was going to let us write a statement.”
J. said her backpack contained personal items and that the incident made her mad.
T’s recollection corresponds with J’s. She said she explained to Wahib that it wasn’t them, that they didn’t see anyone when they came up the path to the school — no girl, no balloons, no wallet.
Even though she asserted her innocence, Wahib told T. and J. to take their things out of their lockers. “He [Wahib] said, ‘It’s protocol. I have to search your backpacks.’” No wallet was found.
On October 1, the Reader interviewed Alex Simpson, a CalWestern law professor and staff attorney, about the incident. Simpson said, “Obviously there are countervailing interests in a school setting. However, the question is whether the school’s actions were reasonable.”
Simpson continued, “The Fourth Amendment ensures that everyone is free from unreasonable searches…. I would say absolutely it’s an unreasonable search because there’s nothing to really tie her to this crime that would give them any cause to be able to search her without her consent.
“And then the second thing becomes at what point is the school allowed to conduct non-consensual searches based on nothing more than a hunch. I don’t think any of us want to be in a situation where our students or our kids are searched just because I kind of have a hunch that you might be doing something wrong.”
The search of “African-American girls” extended beyond J. and T. According to T., two other African-American girls came into her fifth-period class and were angry because they, too, had been hauled into the office and accused of stealing a wallet.
The parents of J. and T. were not contacted until after the interrogation and search. As Simpson points out — this was not a time-sensitive issue. There would be no reason why the parents couldn’t have been contacted prior to the search.
T’s mother told the Reader on October 3 that she was told by the school that everything was conducted according to protocol. But she believes she should have been contacted and been with her daughter when the questioning and search occurred.
“My daughter has all A’s and B’s. Why was she even targeted?” T’s mother said. “There are several things wrong here — the treatment according to race, the treatment of minors and the inappropriate protocol. This has completely changed the comfort level at that high school.”
T.’s mother says she had another child graduate from Olympian and there have been issues in the past that have contributed to a feeling that some African-American students have been the target of extra vigilance by the administration.
Stewart Payne is the father of J. and says she is a solid student who has never been in trouble. Payne is also one of the people who went to the San Diego District Attorney’s Office more than two years ago with information about corruption at the Sweetwater Union High School District.
After learning about what appeared to him to be racial profiling and illegal search, he asked for the district policy. It states:
“School officials may search individual students, their property, and district property under their control, when there is a reasonable suspicion that the search will uncover evidence that the student is violating the law, board policy, administrative regulations, or other rules of the district or the school.”
Payne sent an email to assistant principal Wahib that read, “Based on our phone conversation Friday [September 13], you have failed to demonstrate what reasonable suspicion existed to justify the search of my daughter.” Payne went on to argue that his daughter was not named, that the only description was “two African-American girls,” that neither his daughter nor her friend were on campus at the time of the theft, that misinformation about class schedules played a part, and that his daughter was searched only because she was a friend of a suspect.
Payne’s email continues: “Having knowledge of these facts, a reasonable person should have concluded that there was no reasonable justification to support a search of my daughter's belongings. Yet, you chose to proceed with this search and violated my daughter's rights, and humiliated her in front of her teachers and peers.”
Payne disclosed Wahib’s emailed response with the Reader:
“I would like to clarify the protocol that was followed. Whenever an incident occurs, there is a protocol for interviewing student(s). As information is gathered and names are given we must verify the information during the course of an investigation. In the investigation involving your daughter, it was determined that your daughter was not involved and that there were students who were misidentified. The search of her belongings was conducted in the presence of a female teacher as well as me and the campus assistant. At the time of the investigation, we have to consider many factors and the school resource officer was not necessary in the preliminary investigation.”
In a subsequent letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, Payne included, “I have been intimately involved with the Sweetwater Union High School District. I was one of the original parents to go to the DA’s office with information. I have been a permanent fixture at Sweetwater Board meetings for the past 6 years. It is possible that my daughter was targeted as a result of my actions. Ed Brand is a very vindictive superintendent…. It is very possible that his search was conducted to send a message to me, ‘we will get to you through your daughter.’”
The principal of Olympian did not return a call from the Reader and the district’s communication office had no response.