Commentary


Strip Searching Students---Has the Pursuit of Safety Gone Too Far?


by John W. Whitehead
June 14, 1999

With the threat of drugs, weapons and violence infecting our schools and campuses, school officials have come under severe pressure to insure the safety of students. Such intense pressure by the public, particularly parents, has led some schools to institute extreme measures. First it was metal detectors, then canine searches and finally drug testing. Now, however, students are being subjected to strip searches at school. With the students being treated as if they're criminals, should we be surprised if mandatory line-ups are next?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens, including students, from unreasonable searches and seizures. But by allowing strip searches in schools, the courts have effectively limited students' rights. While a police officer must have probable cause before conducting a strip search of a criminal suspect, a school official only needs "reasonable suspicion" to strip search a student. And while police officers cannot rely on hearsay to establish "probable cause," school officials can conduct a strip search of a student, relying solely on the hearsay of an anonymous informant. As a result, school officials have a much greater leeway in conducting searches of suspects than do police officers.

In a case being handled by The Rutherford Institute, eleven boys at Marie-Davis Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina were strip searched by a school guard and an assistant principal after an anonymous tip suggested that the boys possessed drugs on campus. Without searching the boys' book bags or lockers, the guard and assistant principal ordered the male students to strip down to their underwear. They were then searched for drugs. Some of the boys initially refused to submit to the invasive search. However, they complied after being told that the police would be called if they failed to submit. Others asked to call their parents before being searched, but their requests were denied. The search was completed, but no drugs of any kind were found.

Not all strip searches are conducted in an effort to discover drugs or weapons. Some students have been strip searched after the occurrence of a petty theft. For example, in Alabama a second-grader accused two classmates of stealing seven dollars. The two eight-year-old girls accused of the theft were taken to the bathroom and told to remove their clothes, push their underpants down to their ankles and submit to not one, but two, searches. No money was found.

Last year in McMinnville, Oregon, a group of seventh-and eighth-grade girls were forced to endure a strip search after gym class because there had been reports of missing cosmetics, money and compact discs. Two female police employees (not police officers) were summoned to the school to conduct the search. In an effort to find the missing items, the police employees ordered the students to remove their outer clothing, shake out their bras and pull down their underwear. Some of the girls asked to call their parents, but their requests were denied. Not knowing that they had a right to refuse, other girls reluctantly submitted to the search.

While some parents are suing for violation of the students' constitutional rights in this instance, the school maintains that the search was "reasonable" and thus legal. But is it "reasonable" to subject a student to such a humiliating and invasive procedure, simply on the basis of an anonymous tip or a few missing dollars? "Here we're talking petty theft. Where does that justify a strip search? What about these girls' rights?" asked Chris Church, father of one of the middle-schoolers who was searched at McMinnville.

Unfortunately, students' rights are being forced to take a back seat. As Jacqueline Stefkovich, a law school professor at Temple University, has recognized, "Student rights are clearly eroding."

Adults, and especially parents, might be tempted to allow school officials free reign if it would guarantee the safety of children while they're at school. However, what would happen if employers had the same latitude that school officials are allowed? What if an anonymous tip was passed on to your employer that you possessed contraband? What if, without searching your desk or office first, your boss ordered you into the bathroom where you were forced to strip down, with your underwear around your ankles, and submit to a search? Undoubtedly, you would fight back against the harsh violation of your right to privacy.

Unfortunately, most students are unaware that they have certain rights and avenues of recourse, including the right to refuse to be strip searched. They also have the right of legal recourse if they have been forced to undergo a strip search.

Students should not learn about the Constitution and their civil liberties as a result of having their Fourth Amendment rights violated.
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

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