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Originally published Wednesday, May 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Black students' school suit thrown out

A multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed on behalf of 16 black students who claimed they were unjustly roughed up by Kent School District security...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed on behalf of 16 black students who claimed they were unjustly roughed up by Kent School District security officers was dismissed yesterday in U.S. District Court.

When attorneys representing the students' families showed up late for a pretrial hearing, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour dismissed the case.

Alfoster Garrett Jr., one of two attorneys representing the families, was surprised by the dismissal.

"It [the case] wasn't dismissed on its merits," said Garrett, who is president of Seattle's NAACP branch. "I was five minutes late to court, and the judge threw it out."

District lawyer Mike Harrington said Coughenour "was not satisfied with [the plaintiffs' attorneys'] preparation of the case."

Coughenour's office declined to comment.

Garrett and his law partner, James Egan, had been warned by Coughenour that they needed to be better prepared for court, Harrington said. A few weeks ago, the judge fined their law firm $250 for missing a hearing.

While Garrett claims he was only five minutes late to court, Harrington said it was more like 20 minutes. "What you learn in law school is you can be late to your own wedding but don't be late to federal court," Harrington said.

The families plan to refile the case against Superintendent Barbara Grohe, school security guard Gayle Mengino and the school district in federal court by the end of the week, Garrett said. The previous suit claimed Grohe was negligent and failed to properly supervise district security officers.

The students' families allege that many of the nearly two dozen school security guards, who are not sworn police officers, violated state corporal-punishment laws by using excessive force to discipline students, who ranged in age from 10 to 17, according to the suit. Students were handcuffed, thrown against lockers or on the floor, had their hair yanked or endured officers' painful pressure, the suit said.

The suit, which requested more than $40 million in damages, also said the district disciplined black students at a rate disproportionate to other students. Nearly 27,000 students are enrolled in the Kent School District.

The district continues to allow students to be handcuffed. Since January, handcuffs have been used on school grounds 33 times — during fights, suspected drug possession and a warrant service.

NAACP officials approached school administrators after excessive-force complaints surfaced in December 2003. Last year, the civil-rights group filed claims seeking nearly $50 million in damages for students who say they were mistreated. The district's insurance company rejected the claims.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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