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Secret Service Interrogation of 2 Students Sparks Furor

A teacher reported boys' alleged threats to shoot President Bush. Some say questioning by the federal officers violated the youths' rights.

May 13, 2003|Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — An interrogation by U.S. Secret Service agents of two high school students here for allegedly threatening President Bush has resulted in a barrage of criticism against the Secret Service and some school officials. The case has added impetus to a bill before the state Assembly that would require school officials to inform students of their rights before they are questioned by law enforcement officials.

The alleged threat by two 16-year-old boys at Oakland High School was reported to Secret Service officials in San Francisco by their former English teacher, Sandy Whitney.

Whitney called the Secret Service the day after a class discussion where she allegedly heard one of the students say, "We need a sniper to take care of Bush" and the other reply, "Yeah, I'd do it," according to published reports.

Whitney did not return phone calls. According to a representative of Whitney's union, the teacher is not talking to the media on the advice of Oakland High School Principal Clement Mok. Mok also declined to comment.

The two sophomores, who have not been identified, have denied threatening Bush and said they were just joking around during a routine class discussion on current affairs.

"They were traumatized by the ordeal," said Larry Felson, a teacher at Oakland High School who was contacted by the students after the April 23 questioning. "The agents used profanity and made threats against their immigrant parents. They were told, 'You don't have any ... rights, we own you,' when one of them asked for an attorney."

According to Felson, each student was "grilled for 45 minutes to an hour" in the principal's office and Mok sat in on the questioning. "The principal clearly should have contacted the parents immediately. He didn't even talk to them until three weeks later."

"That's just outrageous," said Greg Hodge, president of the Oakland School Board. "If one of my kids were to make an inappropriate comment, I would certainly want to be called first, before the Secret Service."

Gen Fujioka, an attorney with San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, who is providing legal advice to the two students, believes Whitney "overreacted" and the Secret Service agents "acted way out of bounds."

"The kids were told that their parents could be deported," Fujioka said. "It left them traumatized."

John Gill, a special agent with the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the two students were questioned.

"Anytime the issue of a threat to the president of the United States comes up, the Secret Service has to look into it," Gill said, declining to comment on the status of the investigation.

Several Bay Area teachers' groups have denounced the Secret Service, Whitney and Mok over the matter. The Oakland Education Assn., the union representing Oakland's 4,000 school teachers and support staff, issued a statement calling the interrogation a "blatant infringement of students' free speech and academic freedom. Students have a right to discuss their opinions on any subject without the fear of reprisal or threats of arrest from law enforcement."

Both Hodge and Oakland School Board member Dan Segal said the board plans to investigate the matter. "We will take any action that is appropriate," Segal said.

Some educators and politicians, including Felson and Hodge, have thrown their weight behind AB 1012, a bill now before the California Assembly Appropriations Committee, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and sponsored by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). It would require high school principals to tell students that they can request that a legal guardian be present before they are made available to law enforcement officials.

Steinberg believes that the Oakland High incident proves that his bill is needed.

"And if there's no imminent danger, it seems reasonable to me that the school should allow the students to contact their parents," he said.

The bill breezed through the Assembly Education Committee and is scheduled for another committee hearing Wednesday. But it is opposed by some law enforcement groups, such as the Los Angeles Police Protective League, because "it would tie the hands of law enforcement from making legitimate inquiries."

Similar legislation passed twice before but has been vetoed both times by Republican governors, George Deukmejian in 1989 and Pete Wilson in 1998. A spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis said Davis has not decided his position on the Steinberg legislation.

Oakland Schools Supt. Dennis Chaconas said that, though he "would have preferred the teacher had contacted the principal before calling the Secret Service," he understands the motivation.

However, Chaconas added, since Sept. 11, the district has been asked by Oakland police to report such threats.

Fujioka said the students and their parents are "looking at several legal options."

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