Strip Searching Students for Missing Money or Property: Educators Should Just Say No!
by Richard Fossey - June 18, 2007
It has been 22 years since the Supreme Court first affirmed that children have a constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches while at school. In New Jersey v. TLO (1985), the Court acknowledged that school authorities have an important interest in maintaining safety and order in the schools, but that this interest must be balanced against the school childís constitutionally protected right to privacy.
It has been 22 years since the Supreme Court first affirmed that children have a constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches while at school. In New Jersey v. TLO (1985), the Court acknowledged that school authorities have an important interest in maintaining safety and order in the schools, but that this interest must be balanced against the school childs constitutionally protected right to privacy.
Thus, the Supreme Court ruled, school officials can only conduct searches that intrude on a childs privacy when they have a reasonable suspicion that the search will turn up evidence of wrongdoing. In addition, the Court said, the scope of the search must be reasonablenot unreasonably intrusive into a childs privacy given the nature of the infraction and the age and sex of the child.1
In essence, the Supreme Court ruling requires educators to be reasonable when making decisions about searching students. The Court went out of its way to say that school teachers and administrators do not have to follow the more rigorous constitutional search and seizure guidelines that apply to the police. For example, school officials are not required to obtain a warrant before searching a student. Educators need only have reasonable suspicion that the search will uncover contraband, while police officers typically must meet the more rigorous probable cause standard in order to initiate a search. Over the years, the TLO reasonableness standard has been applied more than 300 times by state and federal courts; and schools that apply that standard when conducting a good faith search are almost always upheld in litigation.
On the other hand, courts have repeatedly expressed strong reservations about one particular type of school searchthe strip search of a student. In such cases, the schools often lose. In fact, courts signaled their concern about strip-searching students in the schools even before the Supreme Courts TLO decision. In Doe v. Renfrow (1980), decided five years before TLO, the Seventh Circuit expressed profound hostility to the strip search of a junior high school girl that had been triggered by a drug-sniffing dog. The court said:
It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a thirteen-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude. More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human decency. Apart from any constitutional readings and rulings, simple common sense would indicate that the conduct of the school officials in permitting such a nude search was not only unlawful but outrageous under settled principles of law (pp. 92-93).
Under the circumstances in which the girl was searched without reasonable cause, the court added, the search exceeded the bounds of reason by two and a half country miles (p. 93). The court followed its stern conclusion by ruling that the girl could seek money damages for her humiliation and the violation of her constitutional rights.
Since TLO, courts have applied TLOs two-part reasonableness test to strip searches on several occasions, upholding them in certain circumstancesusually involving a search for drugs or weapons. In the Cornfield case (1993), for example, school authorities suspected a student of crotching drugs. Two male school employees escorted the student to the boys locker room, where they directed him to disrobe and put on a gym uniform so that officials could inspect his naked body and his clothing for illicit drugs. No drugs were found, but the court ruled that a combination of factors gave school officials reasonable grounds to conduct the search and that the search was not unreasonably intrusive under the circumstances.
Cornfield involved a search for drugs, and some scholars have noted that the courts might give schools more latitude when the goal of the search is to find illegal drugs (Alexander & Alexander, 2005, p. 402). However, post-TLO courts have expressed almost universal condemnation when schools strip search students for lost money or property (Konop v. Northwestern School District, 1998; Oliver v. McClung, 1995).
Surprisingly, strip search cases continue to come before the courts in spite of these federal court precedents. In a 2000 case, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld a money judgment against school officials who had strip searched students in an effort to recover a ring that had gone missing in a high-school class (Kennedy v. Dexter Consolidated School District, 2000). Two students sued: Crystal, a female who was directed to pull down her underwear in a bathroom stall while a school employee looked on; and Randy, a male student who was told to strip to his boxer shorts. School officials had no reason to suspect either student of taking the ring. Crystal was an honor student with no history of disciplinary infractions, and Randy was not even in the classroom when the ring was discovered missing.
Crystal and Randy took their case to a jury, which awarded them compensatory damages against the school district and four school employees plus punitive damages against three school employeesthe high-school principal, a counselor, and the principals secretary. On appeal, an intermediate appellate court affirmed the judgment against the school district but threw out all the judgments against individual school employees.
In reaching its decision, the intermediate appellate court ruled that the nude search of Crystal violated her clearly established constitutional rights, but that Randys constitutional right not to be forced to strip to his boxer shorts had not been clearly established at the time the searches occurred. In other words, the intermediate appellate court made a distinction between the nude search of the female plaintiff and the strip-to-undergarments search of the male.
In a strongly worded ruling, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the lower court on this point, making clear that both searches involved a violation of clearly established constitutional rights.
We agree with the Court of Appeals' use of common sense for the purposes of determining whether the search of Crystal violated clearly established law. . . . The Court of Appeals failed, however, to apply an equal measure of common sense to the search of Randy. The same common sense that compels the conclusion that a school official cannot strip a child naked without having some individualized basis to suspect that child of wrongdoing, also mandates that a child cannot be stripped to his boxer shorts by officials who have no reason to suspect him individually. . . . While forcing the exposure of a child's genitals is more invasive than forcing the exposure of a child's chest, midriff, thighs, and underwear, we cannot accept that this distinction marked the outer boundary of the breadth of clearly established Fourth Amendment rights . . . . (pp. 120-121).
The New Mexico Supreme Court then went on to reinstate all the judgments against individual school officials, including the punitive damages awards against the principal, the principals secretary, and the counselor.
Just last year, two high school girls sued a school district and several employees based on allegations that the girlsboth students in a physical education classwere ordered to disrobe in the girls locker room in a quest for $60 that another student had reported missing (Carlson v. Bremen High School District, 2006). On a motion for summary judgment, a federal court dismissed all the defendants in the case except the school administrator who was accused of actually conducting the search.
However, the court pointedly rejected the school defendants argument that the alleged locker-room strip search was similar to a student voluntarily changing from gym clothes into school clothes and thus was not a constitutional invasion of privacy. On the contrary, the court pointed out, [s]tudents in physical education classes are free to take measures to dress as privately as possible, including not removing their underwear, turning away from other students or teachers, undressing quickly, or changing in a bathroom stall (p. 827). Regardless of whether a school employee actually touched the girls, a strip search in which students are visually inspected by school officials still may be invasive enough to qualify as a constitutional violation absent sufficient justification for the search (p. 827).
The Carlson case is perhaps the most recent decision in a line of cases in which students have sued school officials for conducting strip searches to recover missing property or money. Educators who continue this practice may be committing constitutional violations, and they run a high risk of having a money judgment levied against them.
Educators face many situations in their professional lives in which the law is unclear. Strip-searching students for money or property is not one of them. A reasonable search for drugs and weapons furthers the fundamental value of security in the schools, but strip-searching students to recover another students lost assets is a misuse of power. To paraphrase from an old anti-drugs advertisement, educators who are asked by their superiors to strip search students to recover property or money have only one reasonable response: Just say no!
1. It should be noted that the Supreme Court has applied a different standard for judging the constitutionality of random drug testing programs in public schools, ruling that such programs can be conducted without individualized suspicion in some circumstances. (Vernonia School District v. Acton, 1995; Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 2002).
Alexander, K., & Alexander, M. D. (2005). American public school law. Belmont, CA: Thompson West.
Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002).
Carlson v. Bremen High School District 228, 423 F. Supp. 2d 823 (N.D. Ill. 2006).
Cornfield by Lewis v. Consolidated High School Dist. No. 230, 991 F. 2d 1316 (7th Cir. 1993).
Doe v. Renfrow, 631 F.2d 91 (7th Cir. 1980).
Kennedy v. Dexter Consolidated Schools, 10 P.3d 115 (N.M. 2000).
Konop v. Northwestern School District, 26 F. Supp. 2d 1189 (D. S.D. 1998).
New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
Oliver v. McClung, 919 F. Supp. 1206 (N.D. Ind. 1995).
Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995).