District of Columbia school officials are investigating complaints by about 10 students at Lincoln Junior High School that they were ordered to undress so school administrators could search them for stolen money, a school spokeswoman said yesterday.
The "strip search" allegedly occurred last Friday in an eighth-grade science class at Lincoln, at 16th and Irving streets NW, after a female student reported that $20 was missing from her purse.
Students complained that two assistant principals who said they suspected that the girl's classmates had taken the money ordered them to pull down their pants and open their underpants to expose parts of their bodies where money could have been hidden. The money was not recovered during the search, according to the students.
Lincoln assistant principals Donald A. Wills and Emma I. Bonner said they searched the students, but denied that they ordered the students to remove their clothes, school spokeswoman Janice Cromer said. Neither Wills nor Bonner returned a reporter's telephone calls yesterday.
"The assistant principal Wills is saying he had students hold on to the top of their belts and shake their pants to see if any money would fall," Cromer said. "As part of our investigation, security employes are taking statements from all of those involved. There is a discrepancy between what they and the students are saying.
"We currently operate under a superintendent's directive that says there shall be no strip searches and searches of students require probable cause and written permission from the principal, unless it's an emergency," Cromer said.
Lincoln Principal Christine Burgess told a reporter that she did not know of the search until students complained about it this week.
The superintendent's directive is more restrictive than a recent Supreme Court decision giving schools the right to conduct "reasonable" searches of students. The court said a search can be conducted in a school if there are "reasonable grounds," but added that the search itself must be "reasonably related" to the nature of the offense and not excessively intrusive.
All of the students who were searched were wearing pants last week when the incident occurred, several of them said in an interview with a reporter near the school yesterday.
According to the students interviewed, a group of girls from the science class was taken into an adjoining room and searched. Afterward, a group of boys was taken into the same room and searched, they said. After checking their pockets and not finding any money, Wills and Bonner ordered the students to remove some of their clothes, according to the students, who agreed that the girls were searched only by Bonner and the boys only by Wills.
"Mr. Wills made me take my pants all the way down to here," said one student, 15, bending over and pointing to his shins.
"They searched our underwear and our bras and told us to wiggle our underpants," said a girl, 14. "I was shocked."
"Our rights were violated. They violated our privacy," said Tyrone McNeil, 15. "We did it because they told us to do it. But it was wrong and they know it."
The stepfather of 15-year-old Marsuist Schuler, one of the students who complained about the search, said he was "outraged" over the incident.
"It was a total disaster," said the stepfather, George Farmer. "School personnel acted very irresponsibly in this matter."