Search and Seizure

School Strip-Searches 22 Sixth-Grade Girls Because a Cop Thought They Were Hiding $50 in Their Underwear

Despite the best efforts of a nurse who "loosened their bras" and "checked around the waistband of their panties," no money was found.


Ian Allenden / Dreamstime

When $50 went missing during the choir class's sixth-grade field trip, Lanier Middle School's police officer informed its assistant principal that sometimes "girls like to hide things in their bras and panties." The assistant principal then ordered the choir's 22 female members—it isn't clear whether there were any boys in the choir—to report to the school nurse for strip searches.

Although the nurse "loosened their bras" and "checked around the waistband of their panties," no money was found. The search at the Texas public school was in any case brazenly improper and probably violated the students' rights.

That's according to a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The girls had filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, which readily agreed that it had violated their rights under the Texas constitution. A federal judge nevertheless dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the girls had failed to state a constitutional claim. The Fifth Circuit reversed that decision last week:

Here, the alleged facts, taken together and assumed to be true, permit the reasonable inference—i.e., the claim has facial plausibility—that the risk of public officials' conducting unconstitutional searches was or should have been a "highly predictable consequence" of the school district's decision to provide its staff no training regarding the Constitution's constraints on searches.

Techdirt's Tim Cushing writes that he hopes the school's police officer is now "chronically underemployed":

No one was looking for weapons or even illegal drugs. It was cash—something easy to lose. That $50 has gone missing does not necessarily mean it was stolen. That it may have been stolen does not necessarily mean the female class members would have stashed it in their undergarments.

Cushing adds:

The district's policy for searches is a mess. An unconstitutional mess. As the court points out, it gives no guidance to administrators on how to reach its self-generated standard of "reasonable cause" before performing a search. However, it does tell administrators searches by school personnel should be as non-intrusive as possible and only when there's a "reasonable" belief contraband might be found.

The only discipline handed out for this mass violation of rights was a memo chastising the Vice Principal for performing a search to find something not actually considered to be "contraband." But the court points out that this memo misses the whole point of Constitutional protections and the school's obligation to leave those (and their students) unmolested.

Students aren't prisoners, and schools aren't prisons. But these distinctions blur when school districts rely on police officers and aggressive disciplinary measures to maintain order.