Children can be strip-searched by teachers -Dateline -- Monday, November 10, 1997
U.S. High Court Denies Strip-Search Appeal
The Supreme Court let stand Monday a ruling that public school officials did not violate clearly established constitutional privacy rights by twice strip-searching two girls in the second grade.
The justices left intact a U.S. appeals court ruling that the officials may be guilty of "questionable judgment," but could not be held liable for money damages for an unconstitutional search of the 8-year-old girls.
The case began May 1, 1992, when a teacher and a school counselor in Talladega, Ala., conducted the strip-searches after a classmate reported $7 missing from her purse.
Another classmate accused one of the girls, Cassandra Jenkins, of stealing the money and putting it in the backpack of the other girl, Oneika McKenzie. No money was found in the backpack.
The two girls were taken to a restroom and told by music teacher Susannah Herring to remove their clothes. They were told to come out of the toilet stalls with their underpants down to their ankles, which they did.
No money was found on the girls or in their clothing. After a trip to the principal's office, the girls were taken by Herring and guidance counselorMelba Simon back to the restroom for another, unsuccessful strip-search.
The parents of the two girls sued for damages under the civil rights laws, alleging violations of their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. A divided appeals court in June upheld the decision, ruling that the teacher and counselor enjoyed partial immunity from the constitutional claim.
The appeals court said that in 1992 the law involving searches of students at school had not been sufficiently developed to place the educators on notice that their conduct was constitutionally impermissible.
The Supreme Court in a 1985 ruling gave school administrators greater flexibility to search students, but said they still have a legitimate right to privacy and added that the seach cannot be "excessively intrusive."
Attorneys for the two girls appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the appeals court decision conflicted with the 1985 precedent. They said the appeals court decision sent the wrong message to "school officials nationwide."
They said school authorities may strip-search students to prevent imminent danger from the possession of weapons or illegal drugs, but they may not use intrusive searches for "the most minor suspected infractions."
The attorneys said Supreme Court guidance was urgently needed on the extent of constitutional constraints on strip-searches in schools.
Attorneys for the teacher and the counselor urged that the appeal be denied, saying the appeals court correctly decided the case. The Supreme Court turned down the appeal without any comment or dissent.