Monday, September 16, 2013

Federal Court Finds that Student’s Fourth Amendment Claim Challenging School Strip-Search Is Valid

The Eastern District of North Carolina has found that an elementary student presented a valid claim in a § 1983 suit against a North Carolina school district after the student was strip-searched by a female assistant principal. On the day of the search, J.C., a ten-year-old male 5th grader, helped another student retrieve some money that had been dropped in the school cafeteria, but $20 of the money remained missing. The school’s assistant principal was told that J.C. might have taken the $20, which J.C. denied. The assistant principal ordered J.C. to her office where she made him strip to his underwear and ran her fingers around the inside of his waistband of the undershorts and lifted his undershirt. She did not find any money on him. (Later, the $20 was found on the cafeteria floor.) J.C. sued the school district, arguing that its strip-search policy violated his Fourth Amendment rights. To comply with the Fourth Amendment, school searches must be “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,” under New Jersey v. T.L.O. The federal district court in J.C. found that the assistant principal had less justification to strip search him than what was present in a Supreme Court case, Safford Unified School Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, in which the Court found that the search of a student’s underclothes for drugs violated the Fourth Amendment. Thus, the district court concluded that J.C.’s Fourth Amendment claim survived the school district’s motion to dismiss. Decisions on Fourth Amendment school strip searches seem fairly consistent: school administrators should not strip-search students (particularly of the opposite sex) absent a serious justification—generally, something more than searching for evidence of minor infractions. Even when a school strip search for a minor infraction is upheld, the distress to the student and the time, money, and aggravation of a lawsuit for a school district hardly seems worth it. Read Cox v. Sampson Cnty. Bd. of Educ., No. 7:12-CV-00344-FL (E.D.N.C. Sept. 9, 2013) here.

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