The local sheriff's department subjected 900 students at Worth County High School in Georgia to a warrantless (and fruitless) search for drugs in April; in the course of the raid, cops grabbed many teens' breasts or genitalia. Now nine of those students, with the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights, have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Albany Division, against Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby and several deputies.
The students say their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, as well as similar rights under the Georgia state constitution, were violated during the search.
According to the suit's account of events, all the students "were confined either to their first-period classrooms, to the hallways immediately outside their classrooms, or to the gym" and their "cell phones were seized so that they could not reach their parents….During the lockdown and mass search, Defendants restricted students' access to restrooms. Some students were not permitted to go to the restroom for the entire four-hour lockdown period."
The suit claims that the deputies "inserted fingers inside girls' bras, and pulled up girls' bras, touching and partially exposing their bare breasts," "touched girls' underwear by placing hands inside the waistbands of their pants or reaching up their dresses," "touched girls' vaginal areas through their underwear," and "cupped or groped boys' genitals and touched their buttocks through their pants."
The suit alleges that a female deputy, Brandi Whiddon, searched a 16-year-old plaintiff—known in the suit as K.A.—by taking "one of K.A.'s arms, plac[ing] it higher up on the wall, and kick[ing] her legs to open them wider. Whiddon pulled the front of K.A.'s bra away from her body by the underwire and flipped it up. Whiddon also looked down the back and front of K.A.'s dress. Whiddon slid her hands from one of K.A.'s ankles up to her pelvic area. Whiddon's hands went underneath K.A.'s dress as Whiddon felt up K.A.'s leg. Whiddon's hands stopped on and cupped K.A.'s vaginal area and buttocks. Whiddon then slid her hands down to the other ankle. Whiddon was wearing gloves, but did not change them before or after her search of K.A."
Another plaintiff, known by the initials J.E., told The Washington Post that during the search a male officer lined students up against a wall and "came up under my privates and then he grabbed my testicles twice….I wanted to turn around and tell him to stop touching me. I wanted it to be over and I just wanted to call my dad because I knew something wasn't right."
The school district, though not a plaintiff, agrees that the students' account of what happened is accurate. The suit says that school officials never agreed to allow their students to be searched en masse.
The Post quotes a statement from the sheriff admitting only 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"; the statement claims that the sheriff has taken unspecified "corrective action to insure that this behavior will not occur again."
Although everyone was searched, the sheriff had a "target list" of 13 students he suspected of having drugs, only three of whom were even in school that day. The plaintiffs are suing on behalf of all the students except the trio on the sheriff's "target list." Those three, according to the suit, "were detained and searched in administrative offices at the school, rather than in the hallways or gym with the rest of their classmates."
The students are seeking "Compensatory damages, in an amount to be determined by the jury," along with punitive damages, a judgment that the search violated the students' rights, and reimbursement of the lawsuit's expenses.