State Supreme Court hears school search case: "It is unconstitutional for our daughters to be...violated this way by the public schools..."

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On February 13, the North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a landmark case regarding the authority of public school officials to search students. The Center for Civil Rights, the UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic and other students’ rights advocates filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiff T.A.S, a fifteen year old girl. The NC Court of Appeals found the T.A.S. had been subjected to an unconstitutional search, and the state appealed.

On November 5, 2008, T.A.S. and 133 other students arrived at Brunswick County Academy, an alternative school located in Bolivia, N.C. The students pass through metal detectors on a daily basis, but on that day, every female student at the school was forced to submit to a much more intrusive search.

That morning, acting on anonymous tip that drugs were bringing brought into the school, and without any investigation or corroboration, school officials herded the entire student body into the cafeteria and told them to remain there. Each child was taken individually into a classroom, their school bags and outer clothing were searched, and they were patted down by a male school official in the presence of a male resource officer.

The anonymous tip provided no specific information about any individual students. Nevertheless, T.A.S. and every other female student was required to pull their shirt out, shake it, and pull their bra away from their body in the presence of two adult males. This search violated the county’s own search policy, which requires officials to have individualized suspicion, permission from the superintendent and same gender officials present to witness the search.

The search of T.A.S. revealed half of a Percocet pill and a straw. T.A.S. was charged with the possession. The trial court ruled that the search was reasonable and denied T.A.S.’ motion to suppress the evidence.

A majority of the NC Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding:

Where the blanket search of the entire school lacked any individualized suspicion as to which students were responsible for the alleged infraction or any particularized reason to believe the contraband sought presented an imminent threat to school safety, the search of T.A.S.'s bra was constitutionally unreasonable . . .

The court further held that T.A.S. and her classmates had been subjected to a “strip search,” and that the called school officials conduct “degrading, demeaning, and highly intrusive.”

In its appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, the state claimed that the search was constitutional and minimally intrusive and that no private parts were exposed. The State also argued that students who attend alternative schools have a diminished right of expectation of privacy because they are there for violent or drug offenses, and the school-wide search was therefore permissible.

In her opening statement on behalf of T.A.S, attorney Geeta Kapur told the Court:

“A fifteen-year-old girl was patted down and her bra was searched by a male school official while a male law enforcement officer stood guard and observed in a closed classroom. The two men did not have any individualized suspicion that she had violated any school rules or the law. She must have been humiliated, frightened and embarrassed.

It is unconstitutional for our daughters to be searched and violated this way by the public schools of North Carolina."

Ms. Kapur argued that without individualized suspicion that T.A.S. possessed drugs, the strip search violated the federal and state constitutional prohibitions against general warrant searches. She also distinguished this case from those involving searches of students participating in voluntary extracurricular activities. Kapur asked the Supreme Court to affirm the Court of Appeals, upholding the rule from Safford Unified School District v. Redding (US 2009). “Before school officials can make the quantum leap from coats and backpacks to bras and underwear, school officials must have evidence of concrete danger or that the student was hiding contraband in her underwear. Read T.A.S.' brief (PDF).

The UNC Center for Civil Rights and UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic joined the National ACLU, the NC ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Juvenile Defenders Office, the Southern Juvenile Defender, the NC Juvenile Defender and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in an amicus brief to the court. The amicus brief focused on the state’s attack on students attending alternative schools, which are not juvenile detention facilities but expressly designed to provide individualized learning programs in a caring atmosphere. The amicus brief also noted that the “at-risk”students that often attend these alternative schools include children for whom personal, financial, familial, social, behavioral, or academic circumstances may experience. Read the Amicus brief (PDF).

NC Supreme Court Justices Hear Student Bra Search Case (N&O)

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Tue. March 27, 2012 10:08 AM
Categories: Amicus Curiae, Brunswick County, Criminal Justice, Juvenile Justice
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