In a new case out of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, the court reinforced the Supreme Court’s Safford decision for measuring whether a strip search of a student might be justified and reasonably related to the scope of the circumstances. Schools should tread carefully and ensure staff are aware of district policies.
In 2009, the Supreme Court in Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding, sent a clear message to K-12 public school officials: tread carefully when strip-searching students.
The High Court majority set out a straightforward two-step inquiry for courts: (1) was the strip search justified at its inception, and (2) was the search as actually conducted reasonably related in scope to the circumstances.
Whether the search was justified would depend upon whether there were reasonable grounds for expecting that the search would produce evidence of violation or unlawful conduct, and whether the scope of the search was reasonable would depend on the severity of the suspected infraction and its intrusiveness when considering the age and sex of the student.
Many school districts refined their policies on student searches accordingly. However, many K-12 administrators and staff members ignored those policies, and their districts and school officials were sued for violations of the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable search and seizures.
A most recent example in February 2022 is a lawsuit involving allegations that a female high school student (T.R.) was smoking a marijuana cigarette in her classroom.
School officials searched the possessions of each student and found marijuana paraphernalia in T.R.’s backpack but no marijuana. They then directed T.R. to bring her belongings to the school office where the principal and counselor proceeded to strip search T.R. for marijuana, including having her lift her breasts and bend over. Finding no marijuana, they called in her mother and sister and performed a second strip search, this time in the counselor’s office where a window in the door leading to a public hallway was uncovered during the search. T.R. admitted she regularly smoked marijuana but denied she had marijuana on her person then. Her teacher, however, found the remains of a marijuana cigarette under T.R.’s desk the next day.
T.R. and her mother sued the school district and school officials for violation of the Fourth Amendment, invasion of privacy, and outrage. Even after two futile strip searches, the district court ruled that school officials were immune from liability on all counts. However, on appeal ,the Eleventh Circuit Court reversed the district court’s decision. Citing the Safford decision, the Court of Appeals found that the district and the school officials violated school board policy, and that the two school officials were not entitled to state actor immunity but were liable in their individual capacities. The appellate court reversed on all counts and remanded for further proceedings, including the claim of outrage.
This example is not to say, however, that all student strip searches are unconstitutional and therefore prohibited. Conducted for justifiable reason and with sensitivity for the student accused and about to be searched, strip searches may be lawful.
Closer to home, a strip search lawsuit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania resulted in vindication of school officials’ decision to strip search a male high school student accused of stealing a classmate’s money.
The accused student, Ryan Highhouse, was excused early from his gym class and was the only student present in the locker room when a large amount of money in his classmate’s wallet went missing. Realizing the connection, his gym teacher sent Highhouse to the Vice-Principal’s office. While waiting there, the VP’s secretary saw Highhouse stuffing a wad of something into his underwear and reported that observation to the VP.
The VP questioned Highhouse about the theft, but the student denied taking the money and the VP took him to the gym teacher’s office for further questioning. The gym teacher supplied sweatpants for Highhouse and the VP and gym teacher asked Highhouse to remove his clothing so the two of them could search the clothing.
While the student was undressing, the VP and the gym teacher saw the green color of money wadded in the student’s underwear pants and the VP directed him to remove the wad and hand it to them, which the student did. At no time did the VP or the gym teacher touch Highhouse. After admitting he stole the money, the district imposed a ten-day suspension from school.
Highhouse sued the school district and the VP and gym teacher for unlawful search and seizure prohibited by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and sought punitive damages. The school district moved for summary judgment, meaning that no material facts were in dispute and the district was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Citing the Safford decision, the court reviewed the district’s actions: the gym teacher’s reasonable suspicion of Highhouse’s guilt, the secretary’s report of Highhouse stuffing something into his underwear, the VP’s and the teacher’s sighting of the wad of money through Highhouse’s underwear, as well as the fact that neither the VP nor the gym teacher had Highhouse remove his underwear nor did they touch the student during their search, only his clothes. The district court granted summary judgment to the district.
Bottom Line for Schools
Strip searches of students in public schools are subject to the clear rules established by the Safford decision from the Supreme Court. Strip searches are not routine; they must be reserved for the most serious circumstances. In addition, sensitivity to students’ concerns about bodily privacy are critical features on which a court may look favorably. School officials and staff must be aware of these rules and district policies regarding strip searches.
Note: The two lower court decisions described above were T.R. v. Lamar County Board of Education (11th Cir. 2022) and Highhouse v. Wayne Highlands School District (M.D. Pa. 2018), in which John Freund, Chair of the Education Group at KingSpry, represented the Wayne Highlands School District.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.