Ambush At Goose Creek

Drug Worries Lead To Raid At S. Carolina High School

Seventeen armed police officers, driving unmarked vans, arrive at their target location before dawn.

They assume strategic positions, and when the suspects arrive, the officers draw their weapons, force suspects to the ground and secure the area. Sound like a raid on a gang of thugs? Not quite.

This raid took place in a public high school in Goose Creek, S.C. And it happened because the principal, concerned that drug use was on the rise, called the police for help.

Together, they orchestrated a schoolhouse raid so shocking that most people didn't believe it happened until they saw the videotape.

Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports on what some of the students encountered on Nov. 5, 2003, when they headed straight into an ambush.

"I heard a door slam and the police started yelling, saying, 'Get down,'" says Kayla, a student.

"I thought it was a terrorist attack or something," says another student, Le'Quon. "Or somebody had a gun in the school."

School surveillance cameras and a police photographer captured the raid from the very beginning -- at 6:45 a.m., a time when mostly kids who ride the bus had arrived at school.

Police officers burst out of closets and offices, many charging the students with their guns drawn. They sealed off the main hallway with the help of more than a dozen school staffers, including Principal George McCrackin.

"You need to stay still," says McCrackin on the tape. "Do not move the bookbag."

"They treat us like we a big time drug dealers," says Le'Quon. "Like we were in a crack house or something," adds Maurice Harris, 14.

A total of 107 students were caught up in the raid, including Justin, Le'Quon, Danielle, Kayla and Maurice.

Some students say they had a gun pointed at or near them. "I could see right down the barrel of the gun," says Le'Quon.

"It was just like from where you are sitting at," says Kayla. "Straight up like this, and telling us to get down."

In the first chaotic moments of the raid, police threw some kids to the ground and restrained others in plastic handcuffs.

"My mommy sends me to school everyday thinking that I'm safe and I'm getting a good education," adds Kayla. "The last thing going through her mind is, 'My daughter is sitting in the main hallway with a gun pointing at her.'"

Stratford High School is in Goose Creek, a middle-class suburb of Charleston. It's considered one of the best high schools in South Carolina -- a place where students do well on state tests.

Parents move to Goose Creek so their kids can go to Stratford. But McCrackin, the school's principal, feared it was becoming known for drugs. There had been 15 arrests in the first three months of the school year, compared with 16 arrests the entire year before.

Acting on a tip from a student, McCrackin called the police. Together, they monitored several days of videotape. Convinced they were witnessing drug activity in the main hallway before class, they planned the raid.

For 40 minutes, police led a drug-sniffing dog up and down the hallway, checking bookbags.

"All right, the dog is coming through," says McCrackin on tape. "Just stay still. Don't move."

"He [the dog] was barking like crazy. He wasn't even responding to his commands. It was like he wasn't even trained," recalls Danielle.

"That's not a small dog, neither," says Le'Quon. "If it was let loose, it would have done some damage."

As the search went on, many of Stratford's 2,700 other students started arriving for classes. With the main doors locked, they just waited outside and watched.

The raid ended at 7:20 a.m., just as the first bell rang. What did police find? Nothing.

Police say they got "12 hits" - 12 places where the dog picked up the scent of narcotics. But despite all the planning and all the manpower, the raid was a total bust: no drugs, no weapons, not even a single cigarette.

Ever since the shootings at Columbine, armed police have become a fixture in schools around the country - there to protect the students and to enforce the law.

And it's not just in big cities. Suburbs are also calling police in to deal with problems that used to be handled by teachers and parents.

But even in this new climate, the Stratford raid broke new ground. The story was so amazing, and seemed so far-fetched, that parents like Maurice's mother and father didn't believe it.

"I'm like 'Hmm' and, you know, I questioned him several times, over and over. I said, 'Son, you know, maybe this was some type of drill, mock drill. Are you sure these things took place,'" says Lynette Harris. "And he's like, you know, 'Mom, yes it did.'"

When the Harris family received no answers from the school, they called the CBS affiliate in Charleston. WCSC reporter Heather Hamel went to Stratford, where McCrackin proudly showed her the videotape.

McCrackin has been Stratford's principal for 21 years, ever since the school opened. He's built a solid reputation as a first-class educator, one who runs a tight ship. McCrackin regularly calls the police to bring in dogs to sniff backpacks and lockers.

Two years ago, McCrackin also installed a new surveillance system - including 76 surveillance cameras - to report students' every move.

The day after the raid, as he showed Hamel the tape, McCrackin said the raid was a bust because the guilty kids were tipped off: "There is no question in my mind we know where those parties went, and what direction. We just did not catch them with it at the time."

In order to catch them, McCrackin warned, he'd repeat the raid if necessary: "I'll utilize whatever forces that I deem necessary to keep this campus safe and clean."

After the tape aired on WCSC that night, it sparked rallies both in favor of, and against, the principal.

Responding to mounting criticism, McCrackin started to back down. He sent a letter to Stratford parents, saying: "I was surprised and extremely concerned when I observed the guns drawn. However, once police are on campus, they are in charge."

Lt. Dave Aarons, the officer who headed the operation, defended the police by saying that there's a potential for weapons to be found whenever there are drugs. He added that officer's guns were in the "down ready position so that they would be able to respond if the situation became violent."

"I don't think it was an over-reaction. I believe it was one method, one tactical method, by which we could safely approach the problem, to ensure that everyone was safe" Aarons said.

Attorney Ron Motley is better known for challenging corporate giants like Firestone and Big Tobacco. Now, he represents 38 students in a lawsuit against the school district and the Goose Creek Police Department. The suit alleges assault and battery, excessive force and unreasonable search and seizure.

"They didn't find anything except a Snickers bar. I mean, what kind of storm trooper tactics is this? It's shameful," says Motley.

"What you do is the children you suspect, you search their locker, you search their book bags. And if you find something, then you take either administrative action or you take police action. You don't storm, willy-nilly, 107 people with your guns drawn. You just don't do that."

Neither the police nor the principal would talk with 60 Minutes II, citing ongoing investigations into the raid.

George McCrackin resigned as principal last month and took a desk job with the school district. But he still has plenty of support. Many Stratford students and parents think he did the right thing.

"Do I support them bringing in those guns? Yes, I do," says Kathy Totolo, whose two children, Ryan and Krystal, attend Stratford.

Would she have felt any differently if her children had been in the hallway that morning?

"I would not have any problem with it," says Kathy Totolo. "I send my children to school to be educated. Exactly right. But you know what? There are drugs out there. And you're not living in a realistic world if you think that there's no drugs in the high school, any high school across the United States."

"It scared some kids. But maybe it scared the right kids that needed to be scared," says Kathy's daughter, Krystal. "Maybe it scared the kids that are bringing the drugs in there. Maybe they aren't going to bring them in."

But some people claim that the raid was racially motivated. Although African-Americans make up only 30 percent of the student body, they made up a vast majority of kids caught in the raid.

That brought Rev. Jesse Jackson to town for a rally: "They thought it was a terrorist attack. It was."

Was this racial profiling? "I absolutely deny that," says School Superintendent Chester Floyd.

Floyd was not consulted before the raid but has been managing the aftermath.

"I don't think there was ever any intent to target any race in terms of this. This has to do with students who have a problem with drugs," says Floyd. "I will say that I am absolutely convinced that the intentions of both the administration and the police department were pure."

But what about McCrackin's statement to WCSC that "if we need to, we will do it again?"

"I said I'm sorry that it happened that way. And certainly, if in fact we have one student who feels like they were mistreated, then I want us to be sympathetic to that student's needs," says Floyd.

Nearly 60 families, along with the Harris family, have joined the two class action lawsuits brought by Ron Motley and the ACLU.

The school district has asked a federal court to dismiss Ron Motley's suit, saying the raid was "justified at inception and reasonable in scope."

The South Carolina Attorney General's Office is investigating whether there was criminal conduct on the part of the school or the police.

"I don't think they came into the school expecting kids to have weapons and draw them at the police. They were expecting to scare us," says Kayla. "They did a good job."