Editorial: When is a strip search ever OK in school? Never

Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist
Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist

Lots of boys dream of being Superman. But for one middle-schooler, the nickname brings only distress.

His Superman underwear earned him the nickname the day he was strip-searched in front of three other students in the vice principal’s office of a Clayton County, Ga., middle school.

The boy sued the district on Feb. 15. The lawsuit states that the three students who watched him get strip-searched had already been strip-searched by officials who believed they were in possession of marijuana, before the fourth student, called “D.H.” in court records, was brought in.

D.H. “is suing the Clayton County school district for unspecified punitive and compensatory damages,” according to the Associated Press.

D.H. said he was brought into the office only after one of the initial three students claimed he had drugs. But even when no drugs turned up in his pockets or book bag and one of the students told officials the claim was a lie, the administrators kept searching. D.H. said they made him strip in the office, despite his pleas to be taken into a bathroom. The search turned up nothing.

But D.H.’s innocence didn’t save him from the humiliation he surely endured, or the taunts he has faced from his peers ever since.

In response to the lawsuit, the school district has also taken some internal measures.

Ricky Redding, the school’s resource officer at the time and a defendant in the lawsuit, was fired after the incident. And Tyrus McDowell, the vice principal at the time, resigned after being placed on administrative leave, according to the AP.

What makes the situation worse though, is that this is not the first time the Clayton County school district has been taken to court for strip searching its students.

A federal appeals court ruled that a “mass strip search” of students in the Clayton County school district was unconstitutional almost 10 years ago. D.H.’s attorney told the AP that the Supreme Court ruled partial strip searches of students by school officials unconstitutional in 2009.

Clearly, those rulings did not have a lasting impact on district policy, or this most recent search would have never happened in the first place. Hopefully with D.H.’s lawsuit will come consequences severe enough to ensure that students’ rights and dignity are respected in the future.

Even setting the issue of students’ constitutional rights aside, the district handled this situation atrociously. A student should never be subjected to such humiliation in front of his peers, especially when it is absolutely avoidable. Had officials heeded D.H.’s pleas to be taken to a private room, much of the emotional damage caused him could have been avoided.

There is also a fundamental problem with the way in which it was decided that D.H. should be searched. If the situation occurred as recounted in the lawsuit, officials took the word of one child they had already pegged as a delinquent and reacted to it in a way that gave that child (who admitted he was lying) an upper hand over the innocent D.H.

D.H. was at the mercy of everyone in the room, including his accuser — a situation no student should ever be placed in. The lack of good judgment on behalf of the administrators was appalling. It is fortunate that two of those involved have already been removed from the district.

To truly fix the situation, though, they must be replaced with administrators who have a firm grasp of constitutional law regarding their role and also regarding students’ rights. If they do not, they cannot carry out their jobs effectively, and situations like these will continue to arise. Further, administrators in the district should receive mandatory training to ensure they know the boundaries of their own rights as well as students’ rights.

The kind of ignorance and disregard for students’ rights that has been demonstrated by the Clayton County school district cannot be tolerated. A change must be made. Hopefully, with D.H.’s case, one will.