School Climate & Safety

Federal Court Sets Limits on Prom Pat-Downs

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican (MCT) — May 23, 2011 5 min read
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The U.S. District Court handed two Capital High School students a victory and a civics lesson Friday in barring Santa Fe Public Schools from routine “intrusive” body searches, even at voluntary events as prom and graduation.

The two students—18-year-old Candice Herrera and her 16-year-old sister—claim that a female security officer for Associated Security Industries, which is contracted by the district to provide security on campus and at school events, put her hands on their breasts and bra, and also ordered the women to spread their arms and legs while the guard conducted a search up their bare legs.

The sisters also had their purses searched and various items—body lotion, prescription medicine, and nail clippers—confiscated by district officials at the prom.

The girls also asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order to ensure they would not be searched in that manner again, since Candice Herrera plans to attend Santa Fe High School’s prom tonight and may attend graduation.

In a decision Friday issued by U.S. District Judge James O. Browning of Albuquerque, the court said it would not preclude all such searches, but it will not allow the searches and confiscations “as done in the past.”

The order directed the school district to send a written notice to all students who may attend prom or graduation, stating that they may be searched “and informing the students what items they may not bring.”

But he said the district should “refrain from conducting pat-down searches on every student as a first approach.” Instead, he directed the schools and its security company to use an approach similar to what is done at airport security checks—starting with a visual inspection, then using magnetometric wands and asking attendees to unzip jackets, gowns or purses.

After that approach, “If they have reasonable grounds, based on personal observation or other sources, for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school, the security officers may conduct a pat-down search of the student.”

The court also ordered the school district to provide at least one TSA-certified officer at tonight’s prom and at graduations where a search may occur, and required the private security firm ASI “to train its employees working these events about TSA procedures.”

The Herreras could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

Before the court ruling, several Santa Fe High School students spoke out on the issue of school searches.

Angelo Gallegos, a junior, accepts that he will be patted down on the way into the school’s prom at Pojoaque Pueblo’s Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino tonight.

He expressed mixed feelings about the Santa Fe school district’s code of conduct rules regarding searches of students’ bodies and possessions.

“I think there should be a set line that’s mandated by our government over what is sexual harassment and what isn’t,” he said. “There has to be a limit, some sort of middle ground.”

But, he added, “There are a lot of students who would take advantage of not having enough security.”

Santa Fe High School junior Meredith Brunet Lecomte, who is not attending prom tonight, recalled a much lighter touch at last year’s prom, held at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

“They just told us to take out our purses so they could check inside,” she said. “They barely touched us—just a pat-down to see if there was anything on us.”

She’s been hearing students offer a lot of different opinions regarding the Herrera sisters’ experience and lawsuit.

“It’s kind of scary, knowing that people would go that far to search just because you’re going to prom,” she said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that. I think those girls should do it (file a lawsuit).”

Santa Fe High junior Sariah Gonzales believes in finding a middle ground to handle safety concerns.

“I think security needs to know their boundaries,” she said. “There is a difference between making sure everyone is safe and harassment.”

She’s been searched on campus during homecoming events. “They feel you, that’s for sure,” she said, stressing that it’s always females who pat down females.

Gallegos said he’s never viewed the pat-down experience as a big deal, and never felt it was intrusive. He said guys do not complain about it as much as female students. It’s possible that male guards and administrators are simply less intrusive in their efforts compared with their female counterparts, he said.

Still, other students acknowledge that their teen peers plan to smuggle contraband—alcohol and drugs, if nothing else—into prom.

A Santa Fe High teen who didn’t want her name in the newspaper said some of her friends will bring Ecstasy tablets into the event.

“No matter how thorough they (security) are, they probably won’t find it,” she said, declining to say where she thought students would stash the goods.

According to the school district’s code of conduct, “Intrusive searches, such as pat-downs, may be conducted only on the basis of reasonable suspicion of the individual student to be searched.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter based in Albuquerque, said by phone Thursday that as schools’ zero-tolerance policies on conduct have grown over the past 15 years or so, so have issues regarding violations of students’ rights.

Without directly commenting on the Capital High School case, Simonson said that such situations “seem to ignore the fact that students do in fact have rights and that school officials—even while they may have some greater latitude to search and investigate for possible illicit activity—still have to pay attention to some significant legal boundaries.”

Santa Fe Public Schools’ Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said the Santa Fe Community Convention Center was already booked for Saturday events, which is why Santa Fe High prom organizers looked elsewhere. This is the first time the district has held a high school prom outside city limits.

Gutierrez said district administrators and parents will be in Pojoaque to act as chaperones at the event, which will have only one entrance and exit to monitor pedestrian traffic.

Students 18 or older can book hotel rooms at Buffalo Thunder; those under 18 need parental consent and accompaniment.

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Copyright (c) 2011, The Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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