Allegations of Student Being Strip-Searched by Assistant Principal Demonstrate the Importance of Proper Communications of Student Search Guidelines for Student Searches

Parents of a 10-year-old boy who was allegedly strip-searched by a North Carolina elementary school assistant principal have filed a lawsuit against school officials.  The parents of Justin Cox are alleging that Assistant Principal Teresa Holmes, an administrator at Union Elementary School in Sampson County, North Carolina conducted a strip search of their son while looking for a missing $20 dollar bill.

Having served as an expert witness consultant in a federal civil action where the plaintiff’s alleged that a strip search had occurred, I suggest caution in jumping to conclusions for these types of situations if the facts of the search are not known.  In the above mentioned case, it was clear that the student had not actually been asked to remove any clothing but plaintiff’s counsel described the event as a “strip search”.

Civil actions against school officials relating to allegations of strip searches and other types of intrusive searches are relatively common.  Cases that do not conduct searches that do not involve drugs or weapons as alleged in this instance can be particularly problematic if and when a strip search has actually been performed.  Unfortunately, unlawful searches of students do occur.  The likelihood that these types of situations will occur can be reduced through careful policy development and effective staff development.  This particular area of staff development is challenging because the law changes often.  Fortunately, there are a number of superb trainers in this area such as Dr. Bernie James and Dr. Gary Avery.  I have often advised client districts that the cost of hiring nationally experienced experts like those mentioned to help evaluate policies and to provide training is inexpensive in relation to the impact of a successful civil action or worse, the occurrence of preventable deaths because a lawful search for weapons is not conducted due to a lack of familiarity with laws on search and seizure.

As I mention earlier, it is impossible to tell from a media account whether anything improper occurred.  However, the civil action is a good reminder that school search and seizure is an important topic and that school officials should be provided timely and relevant information on the subject.

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