Earlier this month, a middle school student filed suit in federal court against a Kentucky school district for an allegedly unconstitutional “strip” search. The suit alleges that the student was escorted to the counselor’s office, asked to remove clothes down to her underwear, and then searched. The facts precipitating the search are not clearly identified in the Complaint, however, so it remains unclear what evidence the alleged search was intended to reveal.
There is a well-established body of law in the Sixth Circuit as to searches of students. Because public school officials are state actors, two Supreme Court decisions make clear that students enjoy Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches at school. The first, New Jersey v. TLO set the standard that a search of a student is permissible if it is reasonable at its inception (i.e. based on an individualized suspicion that the search will produce evidence that the student has violated a school rule or the law) and reasonable in scope (i.e. not overly intrusive under the circumstances). The second, Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, addressed unclothed searches specifically and found that a search of a student’s person, which involved removing outer clothing and moving underclothes in front of a school nurse, was unjustified since prior searches of the student’s outer clothes and belongings produced no contraband.
Furthermore, Sixth Circuit authority has suggested that school officials who conduct unclothed on students without proper justification or of unreasonable scope may be subjected to individual liability. As public officials, school employees are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity (or qualified official immunity under Kentucky law) on claims asserted against them so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established law. Yet, as early as 2005, the Sixth Circuit in Beard v. Whitmore Lake School District, held that strip searches of students without appropriate justification violate clearly established law.
Given this, many Kentucky school districts have policies expressly prohibiting strip searches of students. The Complaint in this action alleges that the District failed to train and supervise its staff with respect to student searches. Nevertheless, discovery will likely be necessary to determine if the facts alleged as to the search are accurate and what policies, procedures, and training the district adopted for its staff.