Honor student's family files complaint over arrest

Tuesday, August 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKMULGEE, Okla. (AP) -- Okmulgee police officers resorted to racial profiling when they arrested several black youths at a junior high school graduation, the family of one of those arrested alleges. The family of Andrew Lewis, 16, has filed a human rights complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Okmulgee Police Department and Okmulgee Public Schools. The EEOC named an investigator to the case Monday. If the commission rules in favor of the complaint, it will issue a right to sue for a federal lawsuit.

Lewis was arrested May 26 for trespassing on school property after attending the graduation of his younger brother. He met two classmates to give them a ride home and was arrested on the sidewalk as he walked to his vehicle, according to information in the complaint. The two friends had been told when they first arrived that they could not enter the building, so they went across the street to a park to wait for Lewis, the complaint says. The two joined nine other black high school students who had been turned away from the ceremony.

Police Chief Leo R. Willey said his department was contacted by Okmulgee Junior High Principal John Whitfield the week before the event and asked to provide "an enhanced security detail" to keep high school students from attending. The complaint charges that despite Lewis' attempt to tell officers he had been at the graduation and that his parents, grandparents and brother were still inside, he was handcuffed and placed in the patrol car.

Lewis's family was informed about what was happening outside and went to his defense. Then they followed the squad car to the Okmulgee Police Department, according to the complaint. Superintendent Sheryl D. Flowers wasn't available to comment on the complaint Monday, when the school was served with the lawsuit. On June 19, Flowers wrote a letter to Lewis, calling his arrest" unfortunate." She told Lewis she met with the police and asked that the charges be dropped. "We at Okmulgee Public Schools do not condone these type of experiences for our students and patrons and do not wish for this type situation be repeated," she said in the letter.

The complaint notes that Lewis, a sophomore at the time of his arrest, was consistently on the honor roll, was named "Student of the Month" during each of the past 10 years and was named "Student of the Year" in 1998. Lewis' parents said despite their son's good standing in school and community, he was still picked for arrest because of his color. When they questioned how such a thing could happen, said attorney Joseph Bufogle, the arresting officer's response was, "They all look alike."

The family said they were not satisfied with responses of the school and police, and are following up on the complaint to guarantee "these episodes never again befall innocent children in their community." Additional complaints of false arrest, improper detention, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress are leveled against the school's principal and two police officers.