According to the lawsuit, there were 22 middle school girls who were subjected to a “strip search” as school officials looked for another student’s money that had gone missing. The suit alleges that the girls were “checked around the waistband of their panties and under their shirts. They also had to loosen their bras and lift their shirts, which exposed them from the shoulder to the waist.” The suit was filed against the Houston ISD on behalf of two of the girls.
The court dismissed it. I’m guessing that this may surprise some of you. But this is yet another example of how difficult it is to pin legal liability on a school district for the questionable decisions made by its employees. This was a suit against the employer—not the employee who ordered the strip search. In suits against a private business, the courts embrace the legal theory of respondeat superior, a Latin phrase that is roughly translated as “that truck driver that ran into you makes $32,000 a year—let Wal-Mart pay for the damages.” So in private business, the employer is usually legally liable when an employee does something wrong. Not so with governmental entities.
The Supreme Court decided long ago that governmental entities could not be held liable for violations of federal law under the respondeat superior theory. Therefore, Houston ISD is not going to be held liable when one of its employees violates a student’s constitutional rights. You have to prove that the official policy of Houston ISD was the direct cause of your injury.
That’s hard to do. In this case, the court quoted the HISD official policy about searches and seizures. Guess what: It does not authorize mass strip searches of adolescent girls while pursuing a small amount of money. Of course, it does not prohibit them either, which is a point that the plaintiffs made. But the policy basically regurgitates the federal standards for searching kids in a public school—standards that have been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Good enough.
The plaintiffs also tried to show that there was a widespread, common practice of illegal searches that the school board should have known about. The plaintiffs claimed that they found evidence of 23—23!!—strip searches. That was a tad misleading. Twenty-two of those were the 22 girls searched in this one episode. So there was no evidence of the type of widespread, persistent, well known custom that could be attributable to the school board.
The case is Littell v. Houston ISD, decided by the federal court for the Southern District of Texas on September 30, 2016. We found it at 2016 WL 5661702.
DAWG BONE: DON’T TAKE THIS TO MEAN THAT IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO STRIP SEARCH 22 STUDENTS.
File this one under: LIABILITY
Tomorrow: Our team loses again. Sigh.