Justices let stand school strip-search ruling Appellate court upheld search at Ala. school of two 8-year-old girls

November 11, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court decided yesterday to stay out of a legal dispute over the authority of school officials to order students to take off their clothes to be searched for missing money, drugs or weapons.

Without comment, the court refused to hear an appeal by two Alabama girls who contend that when they were 8-year-old second-graders, they were forced by a teacher and guidance counselor to strip down to their underwear because $7 belonging to another student was missing.

Lower courts have reached widely differing decisions on searches of public school students.

They have disagreed on the meaning of a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that for the first time provided constitutional protection against searches of students or their belongings. The court said held that some searches would be invalid, but it did not specify which ones. In the 1985 case, the search involved a student's purse, not anyone's body or clothing.

Several lower courts have interpreted the 1985 decision to mean strip searches are generally forbidden unless necessary to protect against violence.

But in the Alabama case, a federal appeals court found that the justices' 1985 ruling did not bar strip searches for stolen money.

When the incident occurred, in 1992, the appeals court said, school officials could not know whether their search was barred by the Constitution's ban on "unreasonable" searches and thus were immune to claims of civil rights damages.

In an appeal, lawyers for the two Alabama girls argued that "the use of strip searches has persisted" across the country even after the 1985 decision and lower-court decisions that have condemned such searches.

The ruling in their case, the appeal said, "sends a misleading message to school officials nationwide: that this court's decision [in 1985] should be read to place no enforceable limits on the use by school personnel of highly intrusive search techniques in response to even the most minor suspected infractions."

The two school staff members who were sued contend the conflicting lower-court opinions result from differences in the facts of the cases, not from fundamental differences about what the Constitution requires. What they did, the staff members said, did not violate the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on strip searches of students, because the 1985 ruling involved the search of a purse. The issue should be left for lower courts to sort out, case by case, the school staff members added.

The incident occurred at the Graham Elementary School in Talladega, Ala. A second-grader told the teacher that $7 was missing from her purse. A classmate accused the two girls, Cassandra Jenkins and Oneika McKenzie, of having taken the money, although other students implicated a boy.

Susannah Herring, a music teacher, took charge and told the students to remove their shoes and socks, but no money was found.

The girls contend Herring and Melba Sirmon, a guidance counselor, then took them into a restroom and told them to take off their clothes. Again, the money was not found. School officials dispute that the teacher and guidance counselor ordered the girls to undress, beyond taking off their shoes and socks.

The girls and the boy suspected of having a role were then questioned in the principal's office. The boy said the money was hidden behind a file cabinet. The money was not there, either, so the principal concluded that the boy had no information about the theft.

The two girls said they were then taken back to the restroom and ordered to strip again. School officials deny those claims. But one parent who was visiting the school testified that she heard the girls crying in the restroom and looked in to see one wearing only panties and the other a slip.

Still, the money did not turn up. Later, the girls, joined by their mothers, sued the teacher, the guidance counselor and other school officials, saying that their constitutional right of privacy had been violated.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that the search was unconstitutional. But the full 11-member appeals court reconsidered and voted 8-3 in favor of the claim of immunity by the teacher and guidance counselor. That was the result the Supreme Court voted to leave undisturbed.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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