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School Strip Searches

March 3, 2022

By Thomas McCutcheon

A high school student was strip-searched and sued.

A teacher at the school smelled marijuana and told the assistant principal. The school officials searched every student in the classroom and found paraphernalia in a student’s backpack. The student was escorted to the office by the school counselor.

Because they did not find marijuana in the student’s backpack, the principal and the counselor proceeded to strip search the student. Nothing was found during the strip search, but the end of a marijuana cigarette was found by a teacher under the student’s desk the next day.

The United States District Court for the Northern District in Alabama held that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, and the 11th Circuit reversed.

In this case, there was no justification for the school officials to believe that the student was hiding drugs in her bra or underwear. In another case, the Court identified three scenarios where a school official might have “suspected facts” to justify a strip search: (1) where there is evidence of a general practice of students hiding contraband in their underwear; (2) when other students suggest that a particular student is hiding contraband in his or her underwear or (3) when an earlier search of the student’s underwear resulted in the discovery of contraband. None of those circumstances were presented in this case. “As a result, the school officials lacked the necessary ‘justification in suspected facts’ required. Because the school officials were on notice of a constitutional violation, the district court erred by granting the defendant qualified immunity.

Under Alabama law, a defendant is not entitled to State-agent immunity if the defendant acted willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, or beyond his or her authority.

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