Last week's ACLU Student Conference on Civil Liberties started out like any boring assembly in the school auditorium. Packs of kids slumped back in their chairs, snarfing down Jujubes and Doritos, drawing on their arms, and doing just about anything to distract themselves from the earnest public defenders making abstract remarks about their rights.

But when an actor in a police uniform came running through the room with a dog demanding to search kids' bags, things livened up. "How many of you has this happened to?" the ACLU's bookish Master of Ceremonies, Doug Honig, called out. Dozens of kids woke up and headed for the microphones at either end of the auditorium to speak.

Brushing the braids out of her eyes, baby-faced Tiffany Patillo of Nathan Hale High School in Lake City asked, "Once someone had robbed a store nearby and they locked us all in the classroom and searched our bags, and I was wondering if that was okay." Unfortunately, "Yes, with just cause" was the answer.

Christelle Cunningham, also from Nathan Hale, drew a round of applause when she commented, "They inform your parents about your grades and books. But why don't they inform parents when they're bringing in dogs to sniff everyone's lockers and going through people's personal belongings? I think they don't tell the parents because they don't want them to know what kind of a school it is."

The session, which focused on police searches and was dominated by minority kids, was by far the liveliest at the day-long student conference held at the University of Washington. Hundreds of kids turned out from schools all over Seattle to hear about everything from harassment to drug searches, if only as a way to ditch classes without getting in trouble.

Some felt out of place in the buttoned-down college atmosphere, and even expected to be viewed as criminals. A group of kids from Garfield High School, in the Central District, awkwardly wandered around the college cafeteria at lunch, certain they didn't belong. One joked nervously, "These rich college people are all like, 'What are all these uneducated gang members from the CD doing in our cafeteria?'"

Others viewed the conference as a chance to make friends and influence people. A 17-year old kid, who led a high-speed police chase from Everett to south Seattle a few months ago that jammed up traffic and made all the newspapers and networks, brought the serious tone of the gathering up a notch when he grabbed the microphone, MC style, and offered shout-outs to "all my boys from Nathan Hale!" When the cheering died down, he told a story about being questioned at school for a theft he didn't commit. "They questioned me for hella long," he said, "just because I fit the description and they know me real well."

Turning to face the audience, the teen bellowed, "I was just there to LEARN! They were keeping me from classes!" The auditorium roared, and he offered more shout-outs and charged up the stairs high-fiving his friends.

Later, when the kids divided into small groups for more specific discussions, topics ranged from whether there was anything wrong with smoking pot all day at school to whether it was unfair to be sent home for wearing a tank top. "They said I was a distraction," complained Trish Kirkpatrick. "I had just moved from California, and that was all I had."

"Well, it can be a distraction," a red-faced boy with a fledging mustache blurted out.

"When a girl with a big chest and an hourglass body wears a regular T-shirt, it's a distraction, and they wouldn't send her home," Kirkpatrick retorted, silencing the boy.

Despite the tank-top debate, discussions on the topic of harassment fell flat. Teacher Mike Linett, from Nathan Hale, says, "Myself and the other teachers in the room feel pretty frustrated with the lack of discussion, because we see racial fights and all kinds of harassment every day." He claims the incidents often go unreported. "It's in the principals' best interest to report as few incidents as possible, and no one is calling them on it."

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