The mother of a third-grade student in Clinton, North Carolina who was reportedly asked by a school administrator to disrobe except for his T-shirt and boxer shorts is alleging that the school should not have “strip-searched” her son. According to media accounts, assistant principal Teresa Holmes asked student Justin Cox who is ten years old to partially disrobe in a search for a missing $20 bill. After the search, the money was found under a lunch room table.
Sampson County Schools Spokeswoman Susan Warren Said that the mother, Clarinda Cox should have been informed of the search but defended the actions of the administrator stating that she was within her legal right to conduct the search.
However, if the reports in the media are correct, it is likely that the search would be found unconstitutional if challenged. Courts in the United States have been reluctant to support strip searches of students in contrast to other types of student searches which typically only require only reasonable suspicion. Though this search reportedly did not involve a “strip search” to the point of nudity, the fact that the administrator was only looking for missing money would likely pose problems for the district in court. Courts have typically required that school officials meet a much higher standard of probably cause for these types of searches and are more likely to support them if the search is conducted for a firearm, knife or illicit drugs rather than for missing property.
I served as an expert witness consultant on a federal law suit involving a female police officer who asked a student to pull her bra forward under her clothing during routine entry point weapons screening. Though described as a “strip search” by plaintiff’s counsel, this search did not involve the removal of any clothing and was conducted at an alternative school for older students who were high-risk for violence and substance abuse. In the end, this case was settled though the search likely might have been supported by the courts because the searches were conducted each day to keep weapons out of the school.
Civil actions against school officials who make individual students or groups of students partially disrobe while looking for missing money have often been lost or settled by school officials. We recommend that all school employees receive training on school search and seizure and that clear policies be developed for searches on campus.