Put this on the list of things not to do….

Our story begins in a bathroom stall in a middle school.  Ask yourself: what do you do to guard your privacy in that situation?  I make sure that the door is shut tight and locked. If the lock does not work, I will move to another stall.  One thing I’ve never done, however, is to inspect the ceiling tiles above my head.   

The student (soon to be known as “the Plaintiff”) was allegedly defacing the inside door of the stall with a marker.  How do we know this? Because hovering above him, hidden in the ceiling tiles, was a custodian. Why was he there? Because the principal and assistant principal instructed him to be there. 

Was this a good idea?  It was not. 

The plaintiff brought a suit against the superintendent, the principal and the assistant principal, alleging all manner of potential legal claims.  The court dismissed all but one of those claims based on the school’s Motion to Dismiss.  The one claim that was left was the charge that the principal and assistant principal should be held liable personally for ordering an unreasonable search.

The federal court held that this was a search that was neither “justified at the inception” nor “reasonable in scope.” Therefore it violated the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We should point out that the 4th Amendment says nothing about bathroom stalls or ceiling tiles, but it does protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the court held that this one was unreasonable. 

On top of that, the court held that this was the type of thing that school administrators should know.  The law on this was “clearly established.”  That means that neither the principal nor the assistant was entitled to qualified immunity. 

So put this on the list of things not to do next school year. Whatever you think might be going on in the bathrooms, do not instruct a staff member to hide in the ceiling tiles to observe.  On a personal level, the next time you enter a public bathroom stall, you might want to look skyward. 

It’s C.H. v. Folks, decided by the federal court for the Western District of Texas on August 17, 2010.  We found it at 2010 WL 3257620.


Got a question or comment for the Dawg?  Let me hear from you at jwalsh@wabsa.com

Tomorrow: One for the Sheesh-O-Meter