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Sheriff's dragnet-style mass search of students spurs controversy

Should law enforcement pursue the War on Drugs by searching everyone they encounter until every hidden cache of drugs is found? Most people would say no; even more if it meant an intimate, under-clothes search of each of our kids. Searching every student because a small minority is involved in drug activity seems absurd.

Yet that's what happened recently in a high school in Worth County, Georgia. On June 1, a Sheriff and 29 deputies locked down the high school and performed intrusive searches on virtually all of the 900 students in attendance.

"Deputies inserted fingers inside of and pulled up girls' bras, touching and partially exposing their bare breasts; they touched girls' underwear by placing hands inside their waistbands or reaching up their dresses; and they cupped or groped boys' genitals," reads a statement by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is representing some of the students in a civil rights complaint.

It was worst for the special education students, said J.E., one of the affected students. "As long as justice is served, then I'm fine," he told reporters. "But if justice is not served, then I'm going to fight until we can get justice."

The officers were looking for drugs. They actually suspected just 13 students, only three of whom were in school on June 1. They searched approximately 897 students who weren't even under suspicion. No drugs were found and no arrests were made, apparently.

At school, students have lesser rights in some circumstances

The U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantees us freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures involving our persons, houses, papers, and effects. When courts weigh whether a search or arrest was reasonable, they typically weigh two things:

  • Did the officer have at least a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person searched was involved in criminal activity?
  • Did the search involve a situation or place where the person searched would reasonably expect privacy?

Someone being a high school student is not enough to justify searching them. A hunch is not good enough, typically. Bias and animus are not considered reasonable.

It's true that students are considered to have lesser rights while they are in school, according to a 1985 Supreme Court case. School administrators can perform searches on students in some circumstances where police could not reasonably search an adult. However, it's not clear that police can legally perform the same in-school searches that administrators can.

Do you think the police should be allowed to use a dragnet on high school students -- even when they're not suspected of any crime? Should they be authorized to lock down a school for half a day in order to do so?

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