Strip Search Unconsitutional

DETROIT – In a victory for student rights, a federal judge has ruled that the strip search of more than twenty students that took place at Whitmore Lake High School was unconstitutional and has rejected the school district’s argument that a lawsuit against teachers and administrators should be dismissed before trial.

"The opinion reaffirms the well-established principle that teachers cannot search a student without reason to believe that the individual possesses contraband," said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. "There was simply no excuse for teachers to conduct a mass strip search of students in a fishing expedition to recover lost money."

The case stems from a May, 2000 incident where a high school student reported that money had been taken from her gym bag during gym class. In an unsuccessful attempt to find the money, teachers, at the direction of the acting principal, strip-searched all members of the gym class. The boys were forced to pull down their pants and underwear while they were examined by a teacher. The girls were forced to stand in a circle and pull up their shirts and pull down their shorts.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of eight students, alleging that the strip searches violated the students’ right to be free of unreasonable searches. The school district filed a motion to dismiss the case arguing that the teachers and administrators should be "immune" from responsibility of violating students’ rights because it was not "clearly established" at the time of the strip searches that the practice was unconstitutional.

In rejecting the district’s argument, the U.S. District Court Judge George E. Woods relied on Supreme Court cases and cases from throughout the country as well as the district’s own policy prohibiting such searches. Judge Woods wrote: "This right was clearly established at the time of the incident in question, and the Court finds that case law and common sense lead to only one conclusion: A strip search of students for missing money in the absence of individualized suspicion is not reasonable and precludes Defendant teachers’ request for qualified immunity."

Judge Woods also held that a Northfield Township police officer could be liable for the constitutional rights of the girls who were strip searched. The officer told school officials that if they searched the boys, they should search the girls as well "so there would be no discrimination."

The next step in the case is a jury trial. A precise trial date has not been set.

The case is being litigated by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Matthew Krichbaum and Richard Soble of Soble & Rowe in Ann Arbor.