Security guards confiscate film during weapons search

Officers lock student reporter in classroom until he agrees to surrender photo negatives

FLORIDA -- Miami high school officials returned film they had confiscated in February from a student journalist working on a story about random in-school weapons searches -- after they developed the negatives.

Leandro Leon, editor of South Dade High School's newspaper, The Scene, was trying to take a photo of security guards conducting a search when guards from Vanguard Security, a private security firm contracted by the school to perform searches of students, barricaded him in a classroom and confiscated his film.

The guards were searching the belongings of students in a classroom after they removed the students from the room.

"They evidently sealed off all of the exits and thus left me in the room locked in there," Leon said.

"[The security guards] repeated, 'Give me the film! Give me the film!' I refused because of my First Amendment rights, and I tried to explain it to them," Leon said.

Thomas Coats, activities director for the school, was also in the room and told Leon that if he gave up the film, he would get it back by the end of the day. Leon eventually handed the film over to Coats.

"I did believe him when he said [I would get the film back]," Leon said, adding that he was tired of being locked in the classroom.

That day, Leon had three meetings with principal George Ellis and other administrators whom Leon said tried to dissuade him from calling the news media.

"I said, 'If I don't get the film by the end of the day, I'm going to call the news media,'" Leon said.

But by the end of the day, school administrators had not returned the film. Leon called The Miami Herald, which published an article about the incident. The next day, five local TV stations contacted Leon about doing a story on the situation.

Two days after the guards confiscated the film, school administrators returned the negatives after they had been developed.

"That's when I blew it," Leon said.

Leon said he believes that the school administrator who developed the film violated the school district's student publications guidelines, which prohibit prior review of school-sponsored publications.

Leon said faculty, students and parents have been supportive of his refusal to give up the film. The February issue of The Scene contained a photo developed from the confiscated film, a story about random weapons searches, a staff editorial about the confiscation and a commentary by Leon.

Michael Krop, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade County school board, called the confiscation of Leon's film censorship.

"The confiscation was done by people who were contracted to use metal detectors in our schools, " Krop said. "I think it was [due to] the fact that we failed to apprise them to what should be their proper action. They had no authority to do that."

Krop said the county will take steps to ensure that this type of incident does not happen again.

"We are going to have sensitivity training courses for [security guards] who get a contract," he said. "We are going to be reiterating the policy to our own principals to make sure they understand what the board has intended."

The owner of Vanguard Security did not return phone calls made to his office by the Report for comment.

reports, Spring 2000