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Tardy Attorney Costs Students Lawsuit

A lawyer must refile a claim for 16 black youths in Washington state who say they were unfairly targeted and handcuffed at school.

May 25, 2005|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Lawyer Alfoster Garrett Jr. found out the hard way that, like teachers, some judges don't take kindly to tardiness.

U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour last week threw out a $40-million civil rights lawsuit against a local school district after Garrett, an attorney for the plaintiffs, was late to a pretrial hearing. Garrett said he was five minutes tardy; others said it was more like 20 minutes.

In any case, Garrett -- who also is president of the local NAACP chapter -- now is scrambling to refile the case before Monday, in the hope that a new judge can hear it before the start of the next school year.

"The case was not dismissed on its merits," Garrett said, adding that he had not realized his tardiness "would be met with such ire."

It was Garrett's third strike: He reportedly missed a February hearing and failed to appear at a later court proceeding -- although his partner did show up. Coughenour at that time scolded the legal team for what he called unprofessional behavior.

Despite the setback, Garrett said he was confident. "Once our case is heard on its merits, we will be successful," he said.

Said Kent School District attorney Michael Harrington: "You can be late to your own wedding, but don't be late to federal court."

Harrington said he expected the case to be refiled, although his preference would be a pretrial settlement in the form of a philosophical understanding rather than a financial payout.

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People filed the suit late last year on behalf of 16 African American students, ages 10 to 17, who said they had been handcuffed and treated roughly by school security officers. The suit alleged that the officers routinely targeted black students and subjected them to corporal punishment, which is illegal in the state.

The students also said the officers used pepper spray, pulled their hair and put them in submission holds usually reserved for violent criminals.

The suit sought $2.5 million in damages for each student.

The 26,000-student Kent School District, one of the state's largest, is in a working-class area of Puget Sound. It is also one of the few districts that allows security officers to use handcuffs. Most of Washington's big school districts -- Bellevue, Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver -- don't.

A retired Army general and school consultant, Julius F. Johnson, advised Kent to cease the practice last year after conducting a review of handcuffing incidents. But security officers at Kent schools have used cuffs more than 30 times this year.

Harrington, reiterating what the district has maintained since the allegations emerged last spring, said security officers employed cuffs as "a form of restraint" rather than a use of force.

"The response of the school district is always based on the students' behavior, not on their skin color," Harrington said. He said two of the plaintiffs were in the process of committing felony assaults in school when they were handcuffed. In one case, the person being assaulted was a student; in the other, a teacher.

Harrington said the district "not only has a right, but an obligation" to restrain someone who was inflicting bodily damage on school grounds. He said it was a matter of safety, not punishment.

Garrett said Tuesday that he had learned his lesson about being late.

"I've paid a professional price for it," he said. "I don't blame the judge." Nevertheless, he said, he hopes the court assigns a different judge so that he and his plaintiffs could start with a clean slate.

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