Outraged Teens Sue After Drug-Hunting Cops Pat Down 900 Students At School

Deputies touched girls through their underwear

Every once in awhile one of my teen sons comes home and tells me that someone got busted with drugs at school. But that doesn’t mean all the kids on campus have narcotics stuffed in their pockets. After all, substance abuse is way down among adolescents in the United States. But it seems a group of law enforcement officers thought that suspecting a dozen or so students at a high school in southern Georgia of having drugs was justification enough for patting down all 900 students on campus—nearly the entire student body.

That warrantless, unannounced search at Worth County High School in Sylvester, Georgia, turned up no drugs. But cops involved in the incident are now on the receiving end of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of nine outraged students.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Deputies inserted fingers inside girls’ bras, and pulled up girls’ bras, touching and partially exposing their bare breasts.[/quote]

The suit, filed on June 1 by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, and law firm Horsley Begnaud, alleges that on April 14, Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby and “about 40 uniformed officers from five law enforcement agencies arrived on school grounds.” The officials had a list of 13 suspects, but the deputies ordered the entire school to be locked down. They confiscated kids’ cell phones and, without any explanation, began ordering them into the school hallways. Once there, students were commanded to face the wall and stand spread eagle.

"The whole community is upset about this, our children were violated and we're banding together," parent Amaryllis Coleman told local station WALB. Since the incident, Coleman said her daughter has been having a tough time. "It has triggered a whole bunch of stuff, I mean she's been crying and depressed," said Coleman. The suit alleges that the pat down caused the students to feel “fear, embarrassment, stress, and humiliation.”

Although male officers searched male students, and female officers searched female students, the alleged invasiveness of the searches is shocking. “Deputies touched and manipulated students’ breasts and genitals,” and “inserted fingers inside girls’ bras, and pulled up girls’ bras, touching and partially exposing their bare breasts,” according to the suit.

That’s terrifying enough—but it gets worse: “Deputies touched girls’ underwear by placing hands inside the waistbands of their pants or reaching up their dresses,” and ‘touched girls’ vaginal areas through their underwear,” according to the suit. They also “cupped or groped boys’ genitals and touched their buttocks through their pants.”

After the incident, Sheriff Hobby told WALB that the searches were legal because school administrators were present. Attorney Mark Begnaud said in a statement that the “Courts have made it clear that baseless searches of students’ bodies by law enforcement officers are illegal. The Fourth Amendment requires individualized suspicion before a deputy can lay hands on a child—much less touch his or her private parts.” According to an analysis by the National Constitution Center, the nation’s courts haven’t ruled against reasonable searches of students.

Hobby subsequently released a statement that “one of the deputies had exceeded the instructions given by the Sheriff and conducted a pat down of some students that was more intrusive than instructed by the Sheriff.” That deputy was subject to unspecified “corrective action,” said Hobby.

Meanwhile, that law enforcement officers uses tactics such as pat downs on students is widely seen as evidence of the school-to-prison pipeline—policies and practices that push kids into the criminal justice system. Research shows that black, low-income, and special needs students are more likely to be targets of harsh disciplinary action that puts them in this pipeline. Ninety-three percent of Worth County High School students come from low-income homes.

Some parents and community members have called for the sheriff’s resignation over the aggressive pat downs. Hobby has yet to respond to the suit, which seeks unspecified damages.

via Alan Levine / Flickr

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