Heather Gore is a varsity tennis player at Kent County High School and a majorette in the local marching band. Standing before the school board here recently, she broke down in tears as she described the event that has brought her much unwanted attention in her rural Eastern Shore community.
"My name is Heather Gore," she began, sobbing before even the first word was out. "I am a sophomore at Kent County High School, and on April 16, I was forced to endure a partial strip-search due to a drug search carried out by the Kent County Sheriff's Office. The humiliation that I endured that day, and that I am still enduring, is overwhelming."
The drug search at the school -- in which 16 students were patted down and two were ordered to remove clothing -- was just one skirmish in a national struggle between officials eager to rid schools of drugs and critics who complain that students' rights are often violated by overzealous authorities.
In the flatlands of Kent County, where generations of watermen live alongside generations of farmers, the larger struggle is writ small: a local sheriff, two sophomore girls and several drug-sniffing dogs.
On April 16, at the invitation of Principal Gordon Sampson, officers under the direction of Sheriff John F. Price IV swept 12 classrooms with drug-sniffing dogs. The dogs alerted on 18 book bags, and the students who owned them were subjected to additional searches. Sixteen were patted down.
With a school administrator in the room, Heather, 15, and another sophomore, Lacey Fernwalt, 16, were separately ordered to partially disrobe. Lacey said that she took her pants off and that a female deputy, Marcellene Beck, looked inside her bra.
Heather said Beck told her to remove her skirt. The deputy lifted her tank top, exposing her breasts, and then asked Heather to spread her legs. Beck tugged at the edges of her underwear. "I was crying and hyperventilating. I sat there in disbelief," she said in an interview last week.
Neither girl had drugs. Nor were drugs found in the 18 book bags that drew the dogs' attention.
The school superintendent, Bonnie C. Ward, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement that safe, drug-free schools are her top priority. Although Ward announced that the high school policy on searches will be reviewed, she has not satisfied Heather's parents, who are seeking a public apology from the school system.
"I think everyone was a little surprised that the searches went that far," school system spokesman Jon Baker said.
The school handbook says officials may search a student if there is a "reasonable suspicion" that the student possesses an illegal item. The handbook says police may be invited into the building by school officials, but it does not specifically mention sweeps with dogs or strip-searches.
There is no easy way to determine whether the Kent County search was legal, said Deborah Jeon, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "Everything is very case specific, and the case law is very mixed across the country," she said. "The law is somewhat murky in this area."
Courts have permitted searches in schools, especially since the April 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Jeon said.
The absence of an apology from the school system has deepened the anger of Heather's parents, Patricia Gore and Steven Gore, who has called on Sampson to resign. Addressing the school board May 3, Patricia Gore described an encounter in which Price told her that the reaction of the dogs gave authorities the legal justification to do a cavity search if they chose to.
Price, in an interview, said the dogs are reliable. "Some time or another there have been drugs" in those bags, he said. He said the sweep turned up a knife and a bag of marijuana that one student was seen trying to discard. Two juveniles were arrested.
Still, he qualified his support for the actions of his deputy. "The deputy used her discretion," Price said. "I'm not happy with the level of discretion she used. However, it is within the limits of Maryland laws and constitutional law."
Not everyone is so sure.
"To jump from an alert on a book bag to a strip-search is a pretty big jump," Jeon said. She said the ACLU has not decided whether to sue on Heather's behalf.
It would not be the first time in recent years, even on the Eastern Shore, that school systems have faced litigation for allegedly violating constitutional search-and-seizure protections. In Talbot County, 18 high school students who attended a weekend party in 2000 were forced to submit to urine tests. The school system later settled a lawsuit by agreeing to halt student drug testing and by paying monetary damages.
And in Greene County, Va., north of Charlottesville, 50 male high school students were forced to strip to their underwear in 1997 after another student reported $100 missing from his wallet. Twenty-eight students settled a federal lawsuit for $5,000 each.
Kent County school officials had asked the sheriff to conduct drug sweeps before, Baker said, but never in recent memory had a drug sweep led to strip-searches. In fact, some students suggested a sweep early this year as a way to curtail drug use in the school.
Among those students was Jessi Bedell, a friend of Heather's. Jessi, 16, is an honor student, a cheerleader and a leader in statewide student government. Her parents are teachers in the system.
She was among the students patted down. Beck lifted up her skirt, she said. Another officer later told her to look at it as "a learning experience." Jessi said a Pop-Tart in her bag may have stirred the dog's interest. She said that when she retrieved the bag, the Pop-Tart was gone.
Lacey Fernwalt said she was not bothered by the search as much as by having to undress in front of a window with blinds that were not drawn.
Her mother, Sharon Crew, said she would like an apology but is following her daughter's lead. Lacey has "moved on," she said. "She's put it behind her."
Heather and Lacey say they do not know why they were picked for strip-searches. "There are so many bad people in school, and they picked on the goodie two-shoes," Lacey said.
Price declined to comment on that issue, citing the possibility of litigation.
Kent County, with a population of about 20,000, is so small that Beck returned to the school a week after the search, this time as a substitute teacher in one of Jessi's classes.
"People are going to choose sides over this," Patricia Gore said. "If there's a lawsuit, people are going to choose sides. They're already choosing sides."