Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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N.Y. school sued over strip-search

A woman filed a lawsuit last week against her former high school in New York, claiming she was illegally strip-searched by school officials in the presence of state police officers, the Watertown Daily Times reports, corroborated by the Associated Press.

An anonymous female is suing the Harrisville Central School District, located about 85 miles northeast of Syracuse. She’s identified in the lawsuit only as Jane Doe, and she says Principal Eric Luther, who works at Harrisville Middle/High School, called her into his office in December 2015 and told her that a few other students had accused her of having illegal drugs in her possession.

She says when she got into his office, state police officers were present and that she consented to a search of her backpack in her presence, which Mr Luther allegedly refused, instead offering her a change of clothes and telling her that her clothes would be searched.

According to the text of the lawsuit, filed by attorneys, she was taken to another room, where she was made to change into the new set of clothes Mr Luther had retrieved.

Despite her repeated denial of any drug crimes, she claims, a school nurse, Kelly Avallone, allegedly ordered her, while she wasn’t wearing any clothes, to bend over. As she bent over, Ms Avallone allegedly shined a flashlight into her rectal cavity and then, separately, into her vaginal cavity, finding no drugs during either search.

The school district did not comment on the lawsuit, at least not on the record, and all parties are innocent until proven guilty.

Editorial

At this point, the case amounts to an allegation, and it shouldn’t be assumed that school officials strip-searched the plaintiff as claimed in the lawsuit. We have, in both news reports, nothing but one side of the story.

All the same, I hope schools know that in order to search students this way, they need a bit more than unsworn statements from a few students, who may have a personal vendetta against another student. Since state police were reportedly present, I wonder why drug-sniffing dogs weren’t used prior to conducting a body cavity search.

See, schools can search students without a warrant, even if they have reasonable suspicion that a student has violated school rules, let alone drug laws. But the search still has to be reasonable. This search, if it was conducted as the plaintiff claims, does not seem reasonable to me. School officials would need to show not only that they had reasonably reliable information that the girl had drugs in her possession but that she was hiding drugs in her underwear or a body cavity.

In 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled in Safford v Redding that school districts have qualified immunity and may not be liable for actual damages, even if the nurse violated the plaintiff’s Constitutional rights. But the case gave schools clear guidance for strip-searches. Schools can’t just say they don’t know they can’t do this. So if the school conducted the strip-search as the plaintiff claims, this will not go well for the school.

For school searches, “the public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause.” Under the resulting reasonable suspicion standard, a school search “will be permissible … when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” The required knowledge component of reasonable suspicion for a school administrator’s evidence search is that it raise a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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