July 24 — 1:50 pm, 2012

District settles lawsuit on search of student

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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