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ACLU Press Release: 06-16-97 -- ACLU Of Arkansas Wins Case On Behalf Of Strip-Searched Students

ACLU Of Arkansas Wins Case
On Behalf Of Strip-Searched Students

Monday, June 16, 1997

LITTLE ROCK, AR -- A school district and two high school officials have been found guilty of violating the Fourth Amendment rights of seven former students who were strip-searched in an overzealous hunt for a missing wallet and the $64 it contained.

Ruling in a case filed by the ACLU of Arkansas in May 1996, Federal Judge James Moody found all three defendants -- Conway Public Schools; Connie Westbrook, Dean of Women, and Edward Franklin, Dean of Men -- guilty of the Fourth Amendment violations. He awarded compensatory damages of $250 to each of the plaintiffs. Judge Moody also set punitive damages of $10,000 to be divided among the seven plaintiffs.

"This situation underscores the fact that we all need to be educated about our constitutional rights -- both those whose rights might be violated and those with the power and authority to violate someone's rights," said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas.

"What these girls and their parents did took courage: standing up to a school district and some neighbors who would have rather seen the whole thing swept under the rug at the cost of the girls' rights," she added. "All our clients ever wanted was an apology and a promise that this wouldn't happen again.

"All they wanted was justice," Sklar said. "Today, they feel they got it."

In addition to the monetary damages, the ACLU said it has requested a court-order that the school district:

-- Rewrite its search policy.

-- Train its administrators and teachers to follow the rewritten policy.

Although Judge Moody has said he will rule on the ACLU request soon, the ACLU's Sklar said the school district has already decided it will conduct no more searches.

The victorious students and their parents are: Brenda Canady, by her parents Garry and Lisa Canady; Kristy Harlan, by her mother Kathy Camp; Tracie Wood; Jen Alexander, by her mother, Deborah Alexander; Rhiannon White, by her parents David White and Sheila White Donald; Christina Fenner, by her parents Scott and Vickie Fenner; Sarah Anderson, by her mother Pat Anderson; and Brenda Schopp, by her parents Jo-Ann and Pat Schopp. (Brenda is being represented by attorney Mark Jesse of Little Rock).

The incident began on April 24, 1996, when a group of students at Conway High School, including 12 girls and one boy, attended a for-credit vocational class at Conway Hair Academy.

A full-time student of the Academy discovered that her wallet containing $64 was missing. She called Conway police and Conway High School. Mr. Franklin, and later Mrs. Westbrook, came to the Academy, as did a Conway police officer.

Dean of Men Franklin patted down the one male student and asked him to empty his pockets. The girls were strip-searched because, they were told, "girls had more places to hide things."

Dean of Women Westbrook took each girl in the class into the bathroom individually and asked them to strip down to their underwear; she then conducted a search that included putting her fingers inside their bra and running her fingers around the waistband of their panties.

After objecting and asking to call their parents, the girls were told that the search was "required by law" so they couldn't call, and that they shouldn't object if they had nothing to hide.

In addition, several derogatory remarks were made by Westbrook during the search like, "this is just like being at the beach in your bikini," or this "wasn't anything [they] hadn't done in front of boys before," or "you're a skinny little thing"; in one case the size of the girls' breasts was alluded to.

The ACLU's lawsuit contended that the students' rights were violated under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches. The complaint states that the search was unconstitutional because:

-- There was no reasonable suspicion to believe that any one of the students searched was the thief.

-- The scope of the search was excessive, and therefore unreasonable, under the Fourth Amendment. Considering the nature of what the defendants were looking for, the ACLU said, should never justify a search this intrusive.

This was never a megabucks case," said ACLU cooperating attorney John Wesley Hall Jr. "All the plaintiffs wanted was an apology and the whole lawsuit could have been avoided."

Copyright 1997, The American Civil Liberties Union

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