CLINTON, N.C. — The Rutherford Institute has asked a federal court to hold school officials accountable for stripping a 10-year-old boy down to his underwear in an aggressive strip-search that included rimming the edge of his underwear, allegedly in an attempt to find another student’s missing $20 bill (which was later found on the cafeteria floor). Challenging the school’s attempt to have the lawsuit against it dismissed, Rutherford Institute attorneys insist that there is no justification for the school’s decision to so egregiously violate the fifth-grader’s Fourth Amendment rights or for the alleged failure to train school employees in how to appropriately deal with such matters.
Coming to the defense of J.C. and his family, Institute attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Sampson County Board of Education and former Union Elementary School Assistant Principal Teresa Holmes in December 2012 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The lawsuit argues that the search was constitutionally unreasonable because school officials did not have sufficient grounds to believe J.C. was hiding the lost money and because student strip searches of students are allowed only in the interest of school safety.
“Such outrageous conduct by school officials not only dehumanizes students but it also deprives them of the fundamental right of privacy under our Constitution,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “These types of searches clearly illustrate the danger inherent in giving school administrators carte blanche authority to violate the civil liberties and privacy rights of students. Do we really want young people to be taught that they have no true rights and that government authorities have total power and can violate their rights as they see fit?”
On Friday, June 12, 2012, J.C., a fifth-grader attending Union Elementary School in Clinton, N.C., was in the school cafeteria eating lunch when a female classmate dropped money onto the floor. J.C. went under the table, retrieved the coins and returned them to the girl. Upon approaching J.C.’s table, Assistant Principal Teresa Holmes was informed that someone had dropped $20 on the floor, that the money was missing, and that J.C. had gone under the table in search of the missing money. Despite J.C.’s insistence that he did not have the money, Holmes ordered him to go to her office and with a school custodian present, interrogated the 10-year-old again. Again, J.C. denied having the money, going so far as to pull out his pockets to show that he had no money. Insisting that she had no choice but to search J.C. and was within her legal right to do so, the assistant principal then allegedly ordered J.C. to remove his shoes, socks, pants and shirt. With J.C. stripped to his underwear, Holmes ran her finger around the waistband of his undershorts. No money was found. However, while J.C. was being searched, another teacher arrived to report that the $20 had been found on the cafeteria floor.
In filing suit against the school for violating J.C.’s Fourth Amendment rights, Rutherford Institute attorneys point to a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Safford Unif. Sch. Dist. # 1 v. Redding which held that school officials do not have the authority to strip search a student absent evidence that the student possesses contraband that poses a danger. Affiliate attorney Deborah N. Meyer of Meyer Law Offices, P.A., is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its representation of the Cox family.