CLINTON, N.C. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have sued a North Carolina public school district for allegedly strip-searching a 10-year-old boy, J.C., in search of a $20 bill lost by another student, despite the fact that J.C. twice told school officials he did not have the missing money. The missing money was later found in the school cafeteria. In the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Institute attorneys charge that former Union Elementary School Assistant Principal Teresa Holmes violated J.C.’s Fourth Amendment rights when she allegedly ordered the fifth grader to disrobe down to his underwear and subjected him to an aggressive strip-search that included rimming the edge of his underwear. The lawsuit also calls for the Sampson County Board of Education to be held accountable for failing to adequately train employees on the legal restrictions on strip searches of public school students.
“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?”
According to the complaint, on Friday, June 12, 2012, J.C. Cox, 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, who was also in the cafeteria at the time, 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. Holmes asked J.C. if he had the money and told him that unless he returned it, she would have to search him. J.C. told Holmes he did not have the money. Holmes then ordered J.C. to come with her to her office. Holmes also called a school custodian and asked him to meet her at the office. Once there, Holmes again asked J.C. if he had the money and again, he told her “no.” J.C. even pulled out his pockets to show that he had no money. The assistant principal then told J.C. she had no choice but to search him, and that she was within her legal right to do so. Holmes 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. Holmes did not find any money on J.C. While in Holmes’ office, another teacher arrived to report that the $20 had been found on the cafeteria floor. When J.C.’s mother later contacted the school to voice her concerns about the strip search, she was reportedly told that school personnel have the right to perform strip searches and that the assistant principal was within her rights in doing so.
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 defense of the Cox family.