7th Circuit Says Searches of Students at Private School Violated Fourth Amendment

By Mark Walsh — May 20, 2008 1 min read
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A federal appeals court has ruled that a child welfare caseworker violated the Fourth Amendment when she conducted “strip searches” of two students at a private school without a warrant or the consent of parents or school officials.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled unanimously that the caseworker did not merit qualified immunity in a lawsuit over the search because it was clearly established in the circuit about when such searches by child-welfare workers could be carried out at private schools.

“Today we reiterate ... that it is a violation of a child’s constitutional rights to conduct a search of a child at a private school without a warrant or probable cause, consent, or exigent circumstances,” said the court’s May 19 opinion in Michael C. v. Gresbach.

The search in question came about after a report to the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare that 8- and 9-year-old siblings had been subjected to physical abuse by a family member, according to court documents. The caseworker went to the children’s private school to interview the children, telling the school’s principal she should not seek consent or notify the children’s parents. During the interview, the caseworker asked the children to lift or lower some of their clothing so their arms, legs, and backs could be inspected for signs of abuse. No evidence of abuse was found, and the child abuse case was later closed.

The children’s parents and stepparents sued the caseworker and two other agency officials, claiming that the search violated the children’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

The 7th Circuit panel said it has been clear since a 2003 ruling by the appeals court in Doe v. Heck that a private school and its students had a reasonable expectation of privacy and thus a child-welfare caseworker’s search and seizure of a child without a warrent or parental consent was “presumptively unreasonable.”

Thus, the caseworker in the current case did not have immunity from the suit, the court said.

The parents were represented by Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group that issued this press release on the case.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.