Lawsuit Over Strip-Search of 10-Year-Old Will Advance, Judge Says

A federal judge has recommended that a lawsuit can move forward, alleging that a 10-year-old boy’s rights were violated when an administrator at his Sampson County School strip-searched him down to his underwear.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William A. Webb recommended to deny a motion to dismiss the case against the school board and Assistant Principal at Union Elementary School, Teresa Holmes.

Ms. Holmes, who has retired since the incident occurred, searched fifth grade student, Justin Cox in June 2012 after another child had reported losing $20.

Holmes said that Cox said, “Search me.”  So she did.

The16-page complaint indicates that the child’s Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unreasonable searches may have been violated, and that the school failed to follow policy.

The boy’s parents, Clarinda and Lionel Shawn Cox of Clinton, N.C., are being represented by the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization providing free legal services. The family is seeking undisclosed damages.

Court documents say that the $20 went missing in the school’s cafeteria, and Justin went under a table to retrieve it. When the money was not immediately found and a girl said that Justin had it, he was taken aside by Ms. Holmes.

The boy told Holmes he did not have the money and turned out his pockets, the complaint states. Holmes told the boy to remove everything but his undershirt and boxers for the search.

In front of a male school custodian, Holmes “put her fingers inside the waistband of (Justin’s) undershorts and ran her fingers around the waistband,” court documents say.

The 11-page complaint lists four claims against the school board and Holmes, including violation of federal and state rights protecting people from unreasonable searches, battery and invasion of privacy.

The school board’s motion for dismissal was denied, but the judge dismissed some claims against Holmes. A federal claim specific to Holmes performing the search in her official capacity was dismissed because it duplicated the claim against the school board, according to the ruling. However, she still faces a claim that she violated the boy’s rights under state protections.

According to the school’s search policy, a student may be searched “whenever a school authority had reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating a law of a school.”

According to the documents, however, the policy states that the school official performing the search must be of the same gender as the student.

Holmes and Susan Warren, a spokeswoman for the Sampson County schools, twice said that the search was within Holmes’ rights.

Plaintiff’s position is that the Board of Education failed to properly train its employees, since they stated that they acted in accordance with policies and procedures.

Cox says the search was a violation of her son’s rights.

Justin’s mom says she is also angry that no one from the school notified her to tell her about the incident.  She did not learn about this until Justin told her what happened when he came home from school that day.

Warren admits that the school should have alerted Cox about the search, but says that Holmes wasn’t breaking any rules, and noted that a male janitor was present during the search.

“The assistant principal was within her legal authority, her legal rights to do the search,” Warrant told WRAL, a local television station. “She may have been over-zealous in her actions.”

When parents send their children off to school, they believe that their children will be safe. Not only did the school violate policies that protect students, they also humiliated a young boy.

Do you feel that the Assistant Principal took her authority too far?  What would you do if that happened to your child?  Feel free to comment on this blog post. For more information, contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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