According to a lawsuit filed last week, hundreds of Georgia high school students were subjected to an invasive search for illegal drugs, in which police officers slid their fingers under girls' bras and cupped boys' testicles. Filed in federal court on behalf of nine Worth County students identified only by their initials, the suit seeks to represent the class of approximately 900 students who were allegedly frisked without a warrant or probable cause, violating their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
On April 14, Sheriff Jeff Hobby ordered Worth County High School to be placed on lockdown. Despite already having a "target list" of 13 students suspected of possessing drugs (only three of those students were in school that day), the complaint states, about 40 law enforcement officers from five different agencies conducted a school-wide sweep, "indiscriminately searching all or nearly all students' persons and clothes, and using police dogs to search their bags, classrooms, lockers, and cars." Students were unable to contact their parents because their cellphones were seized, and the school's own resource officer—the official charged with ensuring the safety of these minors—was away at training and allegedly unaware of the mass frisking.
The details in the lawsuit describing the pat-downs and gropings are meticulous and disturbing. One officer, for example, allegedly unzipped an 18-year-old female student's jacket and asked whether it had pockets. When the student, a senior who was searched during her economics class, said no, Sheriff's Deputy Brandi Whiddon reached inside to check anyway. "Then," the suit alleges, "Whiddon rubbed her hands from K.P.'s waist up to her breasts and squeezed her breasts five times through her shirt. Whiddon moved the front center of K.P.'s bra left and right, and then lifted the underwire of her bra so that it was sitting above her bare breasts. Whiddon then groped her breasts twice through her shirt." The uncomfortable search continued, with the deputy allegedly touching the student's vaginal area through her jeans' pockets. K.P. also reported that she "had to pull her bra down herself at the end of the search."
Another student, a 16-year-old boy, said that after Deputy Ray Greene allegedly "rubbed the palms of his hands" over his upper body, he "then spent over ten seconds using his fingers to cup and grope D.J.'s penis and testicles through his pants. After D.J. reacted by shifting his position, Greene sped up the remainder of the search, rubbing the palms of his hands down the insides and outsides of both of D.J.'s legs."
Other students reported the defendants inserting their fingers into the waistbands of their pants; looking down the front and back of their dress; lifting their shirt high enough to expose their stomach and navel; and not wearing gloves or failing to change gloves between searches.
According to a phone interview with local media in April, Sheriff Hobby defended his controversial search after it took place. "When asked about the pat-down of students, and the notion of probable cause," WALB reported, "Hobby said that as long as a school administrator was present, the personal search of the children was legal."
"He said he believes there are drugs at the high school and the middle school, but also said that he will not do another search, due to response from community. He said he felt the search was necessary."
Later, the sheriff released a statement noting that deputies "were instructed to perform a basic and non-intrusive pat down of each student" but later it was discovered that one officer "had exceeded the instructions given by the Sheriff and conducted a pat down of some students that was more intrusive than instructed by the Sheriff. Upon the discovery of the deputy's actions, the Sheriff has taken corrective action to insure that this behavior will not occur again."
Despite the four-hour long mass-frisking, no drugs were found.
Crystal Redd is an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who is representing the plaintiffs alongside Atlanta-based civil rights law firm Horsley Begnaud, LLC. "Young people need to feel safe and secure in their learning environments," she tells Broadly. "The actions by the Worth County Sheriff and Sheriff's Office employees violated the trust that students have in their public officials as they were subject to physical searches of their persons for no reason. The children were confused and did not know why the search was happening. Moreover, the people from whom they seek comfort—their parents and loved ones—were unreachable because the students had to turn in their cellphones at the very beginning of the lockdown."
"Young people are very keen to recognize when something is not right or unfair, and they knew immediately that what was happening was wrong."
"As the complaint details," she continues, "children were intrusively searched in front of their classmates. They were touched and groped over intimate parts of their bodies in view of their classmates for no reason. Young people are very keen to recognize when something is not right or unfair, and they knew immediately that what was happening was wrong."
In a statement, Mark Begnaud, Redd's co-counsel and an attorney with Horsley Begnaud, called the incident "an abuse of power by an elected official," and noted that their goal was to "reaffirm what the Supreme Court has long recognized: students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."
Redd adds that she doesn't know of any context in which a mass frisking of students without a warrant would be permissible. "The Fourth Amendment requires that the law enforcement officials have individualized suspicion before they can touch a child; they did not have that in this situation. The children were searched simply because they were in school that day and that is wrong."
At the time of publishing this article, the Worth County Sheriff Department had not returned Broadly's request for comment.