Toolbox Tuesday: a strip search case from Alabama….

The Toolbox is our firm’s one-day training program regarding the discipline of students with disabilities. Today’s Toolbox Tuesday is about an important ruling from a Circuit Court. The case did not involve a student with a disability, but the issues the court addresses could have involved any student. So let’s dive in. 

It started with a teacher informing school administrators that there was an aroma of burning marijuana in the classroom. The principal and A.P. searched the belongings of every student in the class and came up with some stems and seeds, rolling papers, two lighters and an assortment of pills in the backpack of T.R., a 14-year old girl, soon to be known as “the Plaintiff.”   The administrators then conducted an investigation, which included their questioning of T.R.  She admitted that she had a drug problem and regularly smoked pot. But she denied the specific charge of lighting up in the classroom and further denied possession of anything beyond what they had already found.  Meanwhile, two classmates of T.R. told the principal that they had witnessed her lighting a marijuana cigarette in the classroom.

Let’s pause right there.  What would you do based on that information?  It seems to me that the administrators already had sufficient evidence to take disciplinary action.  The teacher smelled something. The girl had the remains of the product in her backpack.  Two classmates offered eyewitness testimony.  If they wanted to charge her with possession of drugs on campus, they already had enough evidence. It may not be enough evidence for a criminal conviction, but it’s enough to establish a violation of the Code of Conduct. 

They also had a student who deserved some help from the district in dealing with her drug problem. She just admitted it.  Shouldn’t this trigger an intervention? A call to the parents? The involvement of a counselor or social worker?

Maybe the school did that—we can’t tell from the court’s opinion. But what we know is that they decided to conduct a strip search.  The school district disputes some of the facts alleged by the Plaintiff, but at this stage of the game, the court is required to assume that the allegations are true. Those allegations are that the 14-year old girl was required to strip to her underwear. Twice.  And it was during her menstrual cycle, leaving her feeling “humiliated and embarrassed and gross.”  The searches were conducted by two women—the principal and the counselor.  As usual in cases like this, they didn’t find anything. The next day the teacher found the remains of the marijuana cigarette under the girl’s desk. 

The Plaintiff is suing the principal, the counselor and the superintendent.  They all asked the court to dismiss them from the case based on qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects school officials from personal liability unless they violate legal standards that are “clearly established.”  There are many cases in which the court finds that a school official violated legal standards, but that those standards were not “clearly established.”  Unfortunately for the defendants in this case, the court held that the standards about strip searches are clearly established, and these educators should have known that what they allegedly did was a violation of the 4th  Amendment.  The court cited an earlier Supreme Court case (Safford USD No. 1 v. Redding, from 2009) and an 11th Circuit case from 2016 (D.H. v Clayton County School District).  Both of those cases held that the strip search of a student in pursuit of drugs was a violation of the 4th  Amendment.

I hope the point is clear.  As educators, you are expected to have a basic understanding of what the law requires of you and what it prohibits.  Things that are settled law by virtue of earlier court decisions are things you are expected to know about.  You don’t have to know the name of the case, or the details of the ruling. But you should know that requiring students to strip to their underwear in pursuit of a small quantity of drugs is not permitted. This is clearly established. 

The Daily Dawg is designed to serve as one vehicle that helps you stay up to date with important legal developments, like this case.  It’s T.R. v. Lamar County Board of Education, decided by the 11th Circuit on February 4, 2022.  It’s cited at 2022 WL 336343.


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Tomorrow: One for the Sheesh-O-Meter!