Judges Rule High School Strip Searches Unconstitutional

April 04, 2005

DETROIT – In a victory for student rights, a panel of federal judges ruled today that the strip search conducted on more than twenty students at Whitmore Lake High School in 2000 was unconstitutional.

“The opinion is a victory for student privacy because it ensures that students throughout Michigan will not be subjected to such demeaning strip searches again,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.  “Young people do not forfeit their human rights when they enter school.”

In the ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined, “The highly intrusive nature of the searches, the fact that the searches were performed on a substantial number of students, the fact that the searches were performed in the absence of individualized suspicion, and the lack of consent, taken together, demonstrate that the searches were not reasonable.” The ruling is binding on all school officials in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The case stems from a May, 2000 incident where a high school student reported that money had been taken from her gym bag during gym class. In an unsuccessful attempt to find the money, teachers, at the direction of the acting principal, strip-searched all members of the gym class. The boys were forced to pull down their pants and underwear while they were examined by a teacher. The girls were forced to stand in a circle and pull up their shirts and pull down their shorts.

Although the court ruled that the Whitmore Lake teachers and a police officer violated the students’ constitutional rights, it also held that the teachers and officer were “immune” from liability because they were government officials.  The students have not yet decided whether to appeal the immunity ruling. 

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight students, alleging that the strip searches violated the students’ right to be free of unreasonable searches.  The case is being litigated by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Matthew Krichbaum and Richard Soble of Soble, Rowe & Krichbaum in Ann Arbor.