Law & Courts

Court: Class Strip-Searches Unconstitutional

By Caroline Hendrie — April 12, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If a student says she’s had money stolen in school, don’t strip-search the whole class to ferret it out.

That was the message last week from a federal appeals court that laid down new legal parameters for student searches in the judicial circuit covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Tackling a topic that has cropped up in schools around the country, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously held on April 4 that a strip-search of students at a Michigan high school in May 2000 violated the Fourth Amendment’s bar to unreasonable searches.

But the court also concluded that the law was not so clearly established at the time that teachers and a police officer involved in the search in Whitmore Lake, Mich., should have known that their actions were illegal.

For that reason, the court held, those employees were not liable and the group of eight students who filed a civil lawsuit over the incident at Whitmore Lake High School could not collect damages. The ruling overturned a lower court decision denying the employees’ attempt to get the case thrown out on the grounds that were immune from liability.

Despite that reversal, Matthew E. Krichbaum, an Ann Arbor, Mich., lawyer who represented the students on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said he was pleased with the ruling.

“We’re happy that the court so clearly recognized the unconstitutionality of the searches,” he said. “The main thing we wanted to make sure is that these kinds of strip-searches never happen again.”

They will never happen again in Whitmore Lake, if Superintendent Scott A. Menzel has his way. He said last week that the teachers involved had not followed the district’s policy on student searches. That policy stipulates that “[s]earch of a student’s person or intimate personal belongings shall be conducted … only in exceptional circumstances when the health or safety of the student or of others is immediately threatened.”

Mr. Menzel noted that a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit had cleared the 1,300-student district itself of liability in the case, in part because its policy passed constitutional muster.

“There were some errors in judgment,” Mr. Menzel said last week. “As we go forward, it’s been made very clear to our staff that that type of search is not permitted.”

‘Highly Intrusive’

The search in question took place after a girl reported that $364 had been stolen from her gym bag during a physical education class.

Teachers then searched the whole class of roughly 20 boys and five girls in their respective locker rooms. Boys had to remove their shirts and pull down their underwear in a shower room, court papers say, while the girls had to strip to their underwear in a locker room in front of one another. The teachers did not touch the students.

After school officials reported the theft to police, an officer arrived midway through the search and advised them to continue, according to court papers. In the end, the money was not found.

The 6th Circuit court pointed to several factors that made the “highly intrusive” searches unreasonable, including that they were aimed at recovering money.

“School administrators have a real interest in maintaining an atmosphere free of theft,” the panel’s opinion said. “But, a search undertaken to find money serves a less weighty governmental interest than a search undertaken for items that pose a threat to the health or safety of students, such as drugs or weapons.”

Further, the searches involved “a large number of students,” none of whom consented to the search. Staff members also had no reason to suspect any of the youngsters individually.

Still, the court held that at the time of the searches, “prior law involving strip-searches of students did not clearly establish that the defendants’ actions in this case were unconstitutional.”

The appeals panel said two U.S. Supreme Court opinions on student searches “set forth basic principles of law relating to school searches, yet do not offer the guidance necessary to conclude that the officials here were, or should have been, on notice that the searches performed in this case were unreasonable.”

In the first case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court held in 1985 that a school official was justified in searching the purse of a student suspected of smoking in the restroom. In the second, Vernonia School District v. Acton, the high court in 1995 upheld a school system’s policy of randomly testing student athletes for drugs.

Some rulings in the 6th Circuit have specifically addressed strip-searches, but their net effect was not to “truly compel the conclusion that the searches in this case were not reasonable,” the panel found.

And while the panel cited several rulings from other federal judicial circuits in which in-school strip-searches were found unreasonable, it concluded that those cases fell short of clearly signaling that the Whitmore Lake search crossed the constitutional line.

Timothy J. Mullins, a lawyer who represented the employees, said he considered the ruling fair. “If the different circuits can’t figure this out, how do you expect teachers on the front line to figure that out?” he said.

That said, he agreed with Mr. Krichbaum that school officials are now on notice that group strip-searches for money are not the way to go.

“Now there’s no more doubt,” Mr. Krichbaum said. “The next defendant won’t get off.”


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Declines Case on Selective High School Aiming to Boost Racial Diversity
Some advocates saw the K-12 case as the logical next step after last year's decision against affirmative action in college admissions
7 min read
Rising seniors at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gather on the campus in Alexandria, Va., Aug. 10, 2020. From left in front are, Dinan Elsyad, Sean Nguyen, and Tiffany Ji. From left at rear are Jordan Lee and Shibli Nomani. A federal appeals court’s ruling in May 2023 about the admissions policy at the elite public high school in Virginia may provide a vehicle for the U.S. Supreme Court to flesh out the intended scope of its ruling Thursday, June 29, 2023, banning affirmative action in college admissions.
A group of rising seniors at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gather on the campus in Alexandria, Va., in August 2020. From left in front are, Dinan Elsyad, Sean Nguyen, and Tiffany Ji. From left at rear are Jordan Lee and Shibli Nomani. The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 20 declined to hear a challenge to an admissions plan for the selective high school that was facially race neutral but designed to boost the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts School District Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies Are Piling Up
More than 200 school districts are now suing the major social media companies over the youth mental health crisis.
7 min read
A close up of a statue of the blindfolded lady justice against a light blue background with a ghosted image of a hands holding a cellphone with Facebook "Like" and "Love" icons hovering above it.
Law & Courts In 1974, the Supreme Court Recognized English Learners' Rights. The Story Behind That Case
The Lau v. Nichols ruling said students have a right to a "meaningful opportunity" to participate in school, but its legacy is complex.
12 min read
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William O. Douglas is shown in an undated photo.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, shown in an undated photo, wrote the opinion in <i>Lau</i> v. <i>Nichols</i>, the 1974 decision holding that the San Francisco school system had denied Chinese-speaking schoolchildren a meaningful opportunity to participate in their education.
Law & Courts Supreme Court Declines to Hear School District's Transgender Restroom Case
The case asked whether federal law protects transgender students on the use of school facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
4 min read
People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP