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District settles lawsuit on search of student

By Guest blogger on Jul 24, 2012 12:50 PM

This guest blog post comes from Harold Jordan, Notebook board chair and staff member at ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Last week, the School District of Philadelphia settled a lawsuit filed by the parent of a young woman, a student at Harding Middle School, who said she had been subjected to an unlawful and invasive search by school police. I wrote about the case and about the results of state-funded audit of school security that was critical of police behavior at several high schools. In the case at Harding, the student said that a male officer had placed his hands in her shirt without justification. The District agreed to pay the student $35,000 in exchange for ending the suit. It did not admit guilt.

Although we may never know the full details of what happened that day, it is my hope that the lawsuit will force District staff to pay attention to how searches are conducted and to be careful that interactions between police and students are lawful and appropriate. In addition, students need to have a mechanism for complaining about instances in which they feel wronged and have confidence that those complaints will be properly investigated and acted upon.

Note: Following is Jordan's original guest blog post about the case, written in March.

The issue of how far a police search of a student can go may play out in a Philadelphia courtroom as result of a federal lawsuit filed against the School District of Philadelphia.

According to the suit, Conover v. School District of Philadelphia, et al., a 13-year-old female middle school student was subjected to improper touching by school police as part of a search. During a two-hour search of more than 100 students, a male school police officer is alleged to have placed his hand down the female student’s blouse and touched her chest after running a metal detector wand across her body with negative results. Another female student had a similar experience. The student’s lawyer told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she was told that police were searching for a BB gun, but no contraband was found. The District has denied these allegations.

Would it have been proper for school police to respond this way? Probably not. This type of search is known as a “strip search” – where clothing is removed or hands are placed under clothing and touch skin. The U.S. Supreme Court says that this type of search is lawful only under the most extreme circumstances, such as when they have information that leads them to believe the student is hiding something under his or her clothes that poses serious threat to others and there is no other less personal way to search. But such circumstances are rare.

Under current School District policy, physical searches are to be conducted only when the hand wand goes off, and they must be conducted by a police officer of the same sex as the student. While students have more limited privacy rights in schools, constitutional protections that require physical searches to be based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause apply to school searches.

If the student’s claims are correct, this search is troubling on many levels. Beyond the harm to this one student and to her classmates, bad searches can lead to conflict between students and school security, creating an atmosphere of distrust and disrespect between students and officials. When officers and students have an adversarial relationship, the officers are less able to obtain information from students that can prevent violence, daily interactions between students and officers are more likely to escalate, and students are more likely to be arrested, sometimes improperly.

Problems such as the ones described in the Conover complaint may be widespread in the District.

Safe Havens International, a safety consulting firm that reviewed school police and security operations in 25 Philadelphia public schools, found trouble with the pat-down procedures used in 60 percent of those schools, concluding that they would “likely not withstand a proper court challenge.” The report, which raised additional concerns about school policing practices, concluded that addressing these improper procedures “should not only improve school climate and culture, but will likely reduce the number of incidents of students being charged with aggravated assault, as well as officer injuries.”

Interactions between school police and students have become commonplace. During the 2010-11 school year, some 132 of Pennsylvania’s 501 districts employed sworn police officers inside schools, fully authorized with the power to arrest. This count does not include situations in which outside local law enforcement is summoned. This presence is likely to increase, as recent changes to state law now require school officials to report a wider range of incidents to police.

Whatever the result of this case, there is an urgent need for school officials to make sure police and school staff follow proper and respectful procedures.

The March post was also published on Speaking Freely, the blog for ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Harold Jordan is on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), where he edited the ACLU-PA’s Know Your Rights, A Handbook for Public School Students in Pennsylvania

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Comments (9)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 5, 2012 8:44 pm

This is why we need real police officers in schools, not per diem security with seemingly no prereqs for the job. Some are great-- and they would likely make it through training and get paid accordingly. Others can escalate situations, refuse to help in dangerous situations, and do things like this.

I would not let a male officer touch a female student like that. Students don't like getting searched, but sometimes you have to. The correct way to do it does not involve a man having his hand down a 13-year-old girl's shirt ever, for any reason, at all. I have seen plenty of searches done correctly, and because of this the students are less confrontational during one.

Submitted by Helen Gym on March 6, 2012 10:54 am

Great post Harold. There are plenty of amazing safety officers in our public schools many with extensive background and experience in this field. However, there is no question that when entering a school, working with students and young children, that there needs to be some clarity around training and guidelines for officers in a proactive manner. This is something that everyone - the District, principals, parents, teachers, youth and the officers' union - can and should get behind.

Submitted by Darlene (not verified) on May 7, 2012 9:55 pm

my Daughter of 11 years old was actually today 5/7/2012 part of a pat down conducted by the police district at her school they had 4 officers there present searching all 5th and 6th graders for BB guns. Now according to my 11 year old a female cop search her body with her hands with no reason to believe my Daughter had a weapon, so my point was they used the wand for the boys but not for the girls??? Then last of all a male officer search her book bag along with other students book bag and and came across my child's woman hygiene product and said " what are you doing with this??? You are not grown?? like What is going on? what can I do? I know I will be calling the news channel later tonight.

Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on July 30, 2012 1:38 pm

I know of a few occasions at a particular school where the principal and security guard searched middle school students and their belongings in the auditorium after a prank was pulled the day before.

I think group searches of entire classrooms gives students the wrong idea. How many times do they see officers searching a group of people on the streets? To have the same thing occur in the school, which is supposed to be a safe haven for learning, without any reasonable evidence or reason makes them feel as if they are guilty until proven innocent instead of the opposite.

Any thoughts?

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on July 30, 2012 2:11 pm

I think it is better to search a class (done right) than to pick out the "bad" kids and search them. Of course the best would be to get evidence of which kids committed the infraction and search them quietly and in semi-private.

Of course, students should be told what is being searched for, why, and what the consequence will be if it is found. Then they should be given a chance to fess up in a non-confrontational way. The search should be as non-invasive as possible and shouldn't involve hands on the body. But I don't think it is crazy to look through bookbags and purses or ask students to turn pockets inside out.

I don't think the problem is the search itself, I think the problem is in the way they are often conducted. Too often, they get aggressive/accusatory. And in the case of searching for evidence from the day before, it was probably useless.

What the district needs to do is have a clear and consistent policy that includes when a search is okay and how it should be conducted. I think we all agree that if we believe there is a loaded gun in our class, we should search all students thoroughly. But what about searching for spray paint immediately after graffiti is found? What about searching for an item stolen from a teacher? Who may conduct searches and what can they search? Can students be punished if something is found that was not related to the search? Can schools conduct random searches?

Nobody knows, but if it were made clear and done right, we wouldn't have all these horrifying instances like the mother above and what happened to her poor daughter. We have many schools that search all students on their way into the building, and this doesn't cause many problems, because it is clear and procedural.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2012 4:06 pm

The searches of the bookbags took place in the auditorium when the students arrived that morning. Several adults and at least one hundred students were present. The table at which the book bags were searched was no more than ten feet away from the adults.
The student who alleged that she was searched improperly said nothing to any adult that day. She told her father when she went home.
The SD chose to settle for reasons unknown.

Submitted by Notebooklar (not verified) on January 18, 2013 8:26 am
BB guns. Now according to my 11 year old a female cop search her body with her hands with no reason to believe my Daughter had a weapon, so my point was they used the wand for the boys but not for the girls??? Then last of all a male officer search her book bag along with other students book bag and and came across my child's woman hygiene product and said " what are you doing with this???
Submitted by gigel (not verified) on June 9, 2014 4:01 am
This story makes me so angry! This is not something parents should be concerned about when sending their children to school. noutati seo
Submitted by Correy (not verified) on May 26, 2015 12:40 am

There have been so many similar complaints arising in the state about the ill manners of the school police. Even though there is a set law for conducting search on students. And a female student should not be searched by a male officer under any circumstances. senior care corona ca

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