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Back to April Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 207 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS APRIL 2003

Strip-Searching Schoolchildren Okay, Court Rules 
ATLANTA, GA - The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last month threw out a lawsuit filed on behalf of students who were strip-searched by a teacher and a police officer in Clayton County, Georgia in 1996. The then-5th graders were searched after an envelope containing $26 disappeared from teacher Tracey Morgan's classroom. The cash belonged to a student who had earned it selling candy.

According to the plaintiffs, Ms. Morgan was concerned that the loss of $26 would be a significant blow to any of her mostly low-income students. She instituted a search of their desks, purses and other personal belongings. When the money did not turn up, Morgan asked the assistant principal for permission to search the students themselves. Assistant Principal R.G. Roberts allegedly granted her request, and also permitted her to enlist the aid of Clayton County Police Officer Zannie Billingslea, who had arrived on the scene to conduct a DARE class.

Billingslea accompanied the boys to the boys' restroom and proceeded to drop his pants in demonstration of what the children were to do. They complied, and some of the boys even pulled down their underwear. Ms. Morgan took the girls into the girls' restroom where they were directed to lower their pants, pull up their skirts, and even to lift up their shirts and brassieres. Some of the girls complained of inappropriate touching during the searches, which failed to yield the missing money.

When the children's parents found out about the strip searches, they were enraged. They complained to the principal and to the Clayton County Police Department. Both the school district and the police department launched investigations. A school district investigator concluded that the strip searches had in fact taken place. The police department found that Billingslea had acted inappropriately without "probable cause" and issued him a letter of reprimand.

Some of the parents filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of their children. Without conducting a full trial, a district judge ruled that while the strip searches were unconstitutional, the school employees were shielded from liability by federal law.

The parents appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court, which found in August 2001 that the strip searches violated the Fourth Amendment, but that the constitutional rules of immunity did apply to the school officials in the case.

In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court revived the case after overturning another 11th Circuit decision involving qualified immunity. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (3-12-03), the High Court also scolded the 11th Circuit for a "rigid overreliance" on prior court decisions that were factually similar.

The Supreme Court later directed the 11th Circuit to reconsider the Clayton County strip search case. On March 10, however, the Circuit Court stood by its initial ruling in Thomas v. Roberts on the strip searches of the 5th graders.

This case is troubling for concerned parents and educators who wonder whether a precedent of immunity has been set for school officials to conduct similar searches without fear of reprimand. Such searches have been reported in schools across the country.

Following the 11th Circuit Court's affirmation of its original ruling, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Atlanta office noted: "What happened to these children is a parent's worst nightmare. Any parent would be shocked that a federal court would say their children can be strip-searched without the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing."


 
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