Case Involving Student Strip Search Allowed to Proceed Against School Officials

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a judgment favorable to two Alabama school officials stemming from a strip search of minor student, T.R.  While Texas does not fall within the Eleventh Circuit’s jurisdiction, the case is nevertheless instructive.

The suit alleged that a teacher at T.R.’s high school smelled marijuana burning in the classroom and alerted school administrators. The principal and assistant principal searched belongings of every student in the class. While they did not find any marijuana, they found stems and seeds, rolling paper, two lighters, and an assortment of pills in T.R.’s backpack. Two students later divulged that T.R. had lit the marijuana cigarette in the classroom.

T.R. met with the principal and school counselor and denied the allegations. Unable to find evidence of marijuana, the school officials decided to strip search T.R. According to the suit, T.R. was strip searched twice, was made to remove her clothing, lift her breasts, and bend over for inspection.  The searches were conducted in the counselor’s office, which had a door window visible to a public hallway. No marijuana was found.

T.R.’s parent sued the board, principal, and counselor, alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment and state law claims of invasion of privacy and outrage. The trial court granted the principal and counselor qualified immunity and dismissed claims for invasion of privacy and outrage.  The plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

At issue was the student’s Fourth Amendment right of “people to be secure in their persons…against unreasonable searches and seizures.” That right requires officers to have probable cause for conducting a search.  However, the search and seizure of a child by school officials “requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” According to the court, the legality of a search in this context depends on the reasonableness of the search under the circumstances.

This inquiry includes consideration of (1) whether the action was justified at its inception in that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the search would uncover evidence of a violation of law or school rules; and (2) whether the search as conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances.

The court of appeals concluded that clearly established law supported the conclusion that school officials violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. According to the court, it was unreasonable to strip search the student twice.  School officials did not have reasonable suspicion to strip search her at all, much less twice. Moreover, the first search was conducted in a room with a window that was visible from a public hallway, which subjected the student to a “significantly higher level of intrusion.” For similar reasons, the appeals court determined that fact issues remained on T.R.’s privacy and outrage claims, thus, allowing the suit to proceed against the principal and counselor.

The case is T.R. v. Lamar County Bd. of Educ., No. 21-12424 (11th Cir. Feb. 4, 2022) and can be accessed here.

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