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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Students Busted for ‘Studying While Black’

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A police task force rounded up "only students of color" in an unconstitutional gang sweep of Utah's oldest high school, then built a bogus database of supposed gang members, a father claims in Federal Court.

Kevin Winston sued the Salt Lake City Police Department, three other city police departments, the Salt Lake County sheriff, the school district and Board of Education, and others, in a 51-page complaint.

Two years ago, on Dec. 16, 2010, the defendant Metro Gang Task Force staged a gang raid at West High School, in downtown Salt Lake City.

The 16-member gang unit entered the school "early in the day and remained there for several hours," Winston says, and "rounded up between 14 and 40" students.

"During the raid, officers picked up Latino, African-American and Pacific Islander students whose only mistake was to show up to school, and questioned them and photographed them for placement in a gang database, all while still in the school, regardless of whether or not the students had any actual gang membership," the complaint states. "Shockingly, only students of color were targeted by the task force."

Students were taken to a detention classroom and held against their will, Winston says.

Police searched students' backpacks and notebooks without consent, and "interrogated and photographed the students and retained the information obtained from students in police investigative files," the complaint states.

"Defendants denied students' requests to make phone calls to their parents and ignored students' requests to leave the ISD [in-school detention] room. A row of police cars was also visible outside the front of the school," the complaint adds.

Winston's African-American son, K.W., then 14, was targeted by the task force "even though he denied gang membership and had no criminal or juvenile delinquency convictions or prosecutions that predicated his identification or resulted from the sweep," the father says.

Two unidentified plainclothes police officers approached K.W. in the cafeteria, Winston says, and "asked if they could speak with him, telling K.W. that they would make him 'look cool.'"

K.W. thought the men were teachers and that he had been selected for an award, his father says, and he went with them to the detention room.

"Once in the small room, the officers accused K.W. of vandalizing the school with graffiti. K.W. denied the allegations and asked the officers why they were questioning him. The officers told K.W. that a teacher had identified him as a gang member, but refused to state which teacher had identified him," the complaint states.

The officers refused to let K.W. leave the room, told him to "quit acting tough," and grabbed his arm, "leaving a small red bruise," Winston says.

Officers searched K.W.'s backpack, interrogated him and asked for his name, race and birth. They wrote the information on a whiteboard, "including his response that his race was 'black and white,' along with the phrase 'gang tagger,'" Winston says. "Officers then required K.W. to stand to have his photograph taken while holding the whiteboard identifying him as a 'gang tagger.' When K.W. hesitated and did not move quickly enough, a police officer forcibly positioned K.W. to be photographed," the complaint states.

"Shaken and extremely upset," K.W. called his mother after he was released from the room, Winston says.

As he was waiting to be picked up from school, one of the officers that had assaulted K.W. "proceeded to taunt K.W., saying words to the effect of, 'look at the tough guy; you're not so tough anymore.'"

K.W. "appeared traumatized and could not talk about what had happened to him" upon returning home, Winston says.

Eventually, he handed his mother a note that police gave him and described the alleged assault.

He returned to school with his mom, Winston says, and an officer told K.W.'s mother "there's a problem with the Mexicans" when she asked about the task force's actions.

K.W. "heard police officers tell his mother that 'she had her head up her ass' if she thought that K.W. was not a gang tagger, because K.W. had adopted the 'tagger name' of 'Maze' and had been vandalizing the school with graffiti and had been lying to her about his criminal activities," according to the complaint.

An officer said that K.W. "must have been" pegged as a gang member because he "looks Mexican," the complaint states.

As a result of the raid, K.W. refused to carry a notebook and resisted carrying a backpack for several months, his father says.

His grades dropped, his self-esteem suffered, and he "has refused to draw since the incident, fearing that his drawings would be found and used to accuse him of being a gang tagger," the complaint states.

Winston calls the raid "an ill-conceived and unconstitutional plan," and claims that high school administrators invited the gang unit to the school without notifying parents or students.

The electronic database is referred to as the Gang Reporting Evaluation And Tracking system, or GREAT.

"On top of the myriad constitutional violations and common law torts spawned by these events, this raid sent all students of color a clear message: you are suspected gang members, even if all you are doing is going to school. Moreover, the raid signaled to students that even school can be turned into a police station for non-white students. These messages are especially harmful at a time when Utah is struggling to increase graduation rates for high school students, especially minority students."

West High School, opened in 1890, is the oldest high school in Utah.

Its alumni include Harold Ross, founder of "The New Yorker" magazine; Thomas Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and the late Larry Miller, former owner of the NBA's Utah Jazz.

Named as defendants are Salt Lake City; the West Jordan and West Valley Police Departments and their chiefs; the Metro Gang Unit of the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake; Salt Lake County; Salt Lake City School District and its superintendent; Salt Lake City Board of Education; and West High School's principal.

Winston seeks class status, an injunction prohibiting the task force from detaining, interrogating or photographing students; and punitive damages for violations of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments.

He is represented by John Mejia with the ACLU.

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