Ohio School District Sued for Alleged Unclothed Search of Student and Improper Questioning

close up court courthouse hammer
The Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit require strong justifications for unclothed searches of students.

An Ohio school district south of Cleveland was sued last week in federal court as a result of the search and questioning of a 10-year-old Muslim boy. The Complaint alleges that, a teacher’s aide, teacher and nurse removed the boy, who is of Palestinian heritage, from class and proceeded to question him about his religion, home life, and his love of God and America.

Later in the day, the Complaint asserts that the boy was questioned further due to teacher’s incorrect suspicions of abuse in the home. This resulted in the boy being asked to lift his shirt and lower his pants to permit school officials to view his body. Ultimately, child protective services in Ohio investigated but clear the plaintiff’s parents of abuse. The suit was then filed against the District and its officials, alleging that the search and questioning were wrongful and negligence in the district’s response following the search.

Infringing on a student’s right to religious freedom or engaging in discrimination on the basis of religious are both plainly prohibited by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Complaint alleges that the questioning of the student, which allegedly included references to his religion, constituted both.

Likewise, the Supreme Court has long held in New Jersey v. T.L.O.that school officials must have reasonable suspicion of a violation of the law or school policy to conduct a search of students and that the search conducted must be reasonable in scope in relation to the matters suspected. As one might imagine, federal courts have been quite skeptical of unclothed searches of students. The Supreme Court in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Reddingfound an unclothed search of a female student suspected of possessing ibuprofen tablets in violation of school policy. Subsequently, in Knisley v. Pike County Joint Voc. Sch. Dist., the Sixth Circuit invalidated an unclothed search of a group of students in order to locate a missing credit card. While suspected abuse, in theory, may provide a justification for school officials to conduct a search, the court in the new suit will most certainly be focused on whether the suspicion was strong enough to justify the invasion into the student’s privacy.

Moreover, while claims pursued against public entities are generally far more difficult to pursue than those asserted only against individuals, the Complaint also alleges that the district should be held responsible for the violation of rights for several reasons. First, it alleges that district officials altered records to hide the incident. Second, it alleges that the district failed to remove the student from the officials who conducted the search, despite repeated complaints. Normally, when a plaintiff tries to sue a public entity on a theory of inaction, such as the failure to prevent harm, the high “deliberate indifference” standard applies. This is a difficult standard to satisfy but, if proven, alteration of public records is something for which judges and juries alike have little sympathy. It is, of course, very early in the litigation so it remains to be seen whether the plaintiff will present sufficient proof to show his rights were violated and avoid qualified official immunity.

KY Parent Volunteer Sues School for Allegedly Disrupting Breastfeeding

More and more, public spaces, companies, and entities are making efforts to accommodate breastfeeding mothers. As a recent example of this, you may have noticed if you’ve traveled in airports recently that small privacy pods are being installed so that breastfeeding mothers can pump or feed their babies in private. For many weary mothers traveling with babies or a bag of pumping supplies, this privacy option (that isn’t a bathroom stall) is probably much appreciated.

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In honor of Mother’s Day, our posts for May will discuss accommodations for expectant and breastfeeding mothers. 

Still, even if private accommodations are available, does this mean breastfeeding mothers should be required to use them? That is the issue in a civil lawsuit just filed against the Jefferson County Schools in Louisville, Kentucky. The suit, filed by a parent volunteer and member of the school’s site-based council, alleges that the District violated KRS 211.755 when its officials asked the mother to move to private office to feed her infant daughter. According to an interview given by the plaintiff and her attorney, this conversation occurred after she had started feeding her daughter. After the incident, the plaintiff alleges that she was told by school officials that breatsfeeding in the future while volunteering would need to occur in a private office. As a result of this encounter, the plaintiff claims she has missed out on other volunteer opportunities and is seeking money damages and an injunction.

Notably, while KRS 211.755 certainly appears to protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed or express milk and prohibits interference with the act of breastfeeding, there are no judicial interpretations of its meaning. Moreover, the protections apply only in spaces where the mother is “otherwise authorized to be.” Since no court has yet to interpret this phrase, it is not clear to what extent a public entity or school could make advance arrangements or craft policies to address breastfeeding by members of the public or volunteers. It is also not clear what rises to the level of “interference” under KRS 211.755(3).

Furthermore, no remedy for violations of KRS 211.755 is stated in the statute itself. This may mean that the only mechanism for enforcing the statute is KRS 446.070, a statute that authorizes civil suits for violations of Kentucky statutes. However, certain elements must be satisfied for this mechanism to be available. Moreover, some case law suggests that an action filed pursuant to KRS 446.070 may be subject to immunity defenses available to school districts and officials under Kentucky law. Since no court has yet interpreted KRS 211.755, it is not currently clear whether damages suits for violations of that provision are available.

Regardless, schools and other public entities who rely on the time and talent of parent volunteers, would be wise to review the requirements of KRS 211.755 with their attorneys. As education about breastfeeding accommodations becomes more widespread, these issues are likely to only increase. Furthermore, ensuring quality communciation and respect for the rights of mothers is a great way to establish and build relationships with the public and volunteers who contribute so much to schools.

Beyond this, advocates are working hard to expand the protections for breastfeeding mothers in public spaces. Just recently, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 18 which amends its Civil Rights Act to include protections for expectant and breastfeeding mothers. We’ll cover this topic is our next post.