The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia sheriff, deputies indicted after body searches of 900 high school students

Georgia sheriff, were deputies indicted in October after body searches of 900 high school students. (Video: WALB)

The sound system squawked at 8 a.m., just as the school day was revving up at Worth County High School. The campus was now on lockdown, the announcement said. Neither the teachers nor students at the south Georgia school knew what was going on.

For the next four hours, 40 uniformed officers — the entire staff of the Worth County Sheriff’s Office — fanned through the school in Sylvester, ordering students against the walls of classrooms and hallways, demanding the students hand over their cellphones.

All 900 students were searched, part of a drug sweep ordered by Sheriff Jeff Hobby, according to court documents.

He did not have a warrant. He had a “target list” of 12 suspected drug users. Only three of the names were in school that day, April 14.

By noon, when cellphones were handed back and classes resumed, no drugs had been found.

The sheriff’s full-court press, however, would yield legal consequences — for Hobby and his office. In the days following the sweep, students came forward charging they had been inappropriately groped and manhandled by deputies. A class-action federal civil suit followed.

And now, this week a grand jury indicted Hobby and two deputies for their part in the high school raid. Hobby faces charges of sexual battery, false imprisonment, and violation of oath of office, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The sheriff’s position is that he’s not guilty,” Hobby’s attorney, Norman Crowe Jr., told the news outlet. The sheriff was at the school for the raid but personally did not touch students, the lawyer maintained. “He’s committed no crime.”

The search brought unwanted national attention on the department. As the controversy broke, Hobby gave an off-camera interview to WALB in which he said the searches were legal because school administrators were present.

In a statement released on April 18, Hobby elaborated that in “the weeks leading up to April 14, the Sheriff’s Office received information and complaints from the citizens of Worth County regarding illegal drugs at the high school. The Sheriff contacted the Superintendent of the Worth County School District and the Principal of the high school to inform them of the situation and the Principal and the Sheriff agreed on the day of the pat down.”

School officials, however, have countered the idea they were willing participants in om Hobby’s plans.

“We did not give permission but they didn’t ask for permission,” Interim Worth County Superintendent Lawrence Walters told WALB after the raid. “He just said, the sheriff, that he was going to do it after spring break.”

“I don’t think anybody in the school system had any idea that it would be of the nature of what actually happened,” Tommy Coleman, a lawyer for the school district, told The Washington Post in June. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never heard of anybody doing that kind of thing.”

A Georgia sheriff ordered pat-down searches for every student at a public high school. Now they’re suing.

The class-action lawsuit — filed on behalf of nine unnamed students — laid out detailed allegations of groping during the school search. One student recounted that a deputy “looked down the back and front” of the student’s dress, then “slid her hands” over her pelvic area and “cupped” the student’s “vaginal area and buttocks,” according to the legal complaint.

Another male student recounted a deputy “moving his fingers back and forth” from his pockets to his groin, the lawsuit stated. The deputy’s fingertips touched the student’s “penis and testicles, over clothes, four to five times.”

A third student recounted how a deputy “reached up under” her shirt, “lifted her bra, and touched her bare breasts, including her nipples.”

In June, when the lawsuit was filed, one of the teenagers recounted his ordeal to The Post. The deputy “came up under my privates and then he grabbed my testicles twice,” the student said. “I wanted to turn around and tell him to stop touching me. I wanted it to be over and I just wanted to call my dad because I knew something wasn’t right.”

Following the outcry, Hobby acknowledged in his April statement that “one of the deputies had exceed the instructions given by the Sheriff and conducted a pat down of some students that was more intrusive than instructed.” The sheriff said “corrective action” was taken — but the office has not publicly offered further detail.

The grand jury this week indicted two deputies along with the sheriff: Tyler Turner faces one felony count of violation of oath of office and one misdemeanor count of sexual battery. Deidra Whiddon was indicted on one count of violation of oath of office.

Local prosecutors also announced this week copies of the indictment would be sent to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who has the legal authority to suspend Hobby. The Journal-Constitution reported the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council has already suspended the law enforcement certifications of Hobby and his deputies.

More from Morning Mix:

A skydiver’s parachute mysteriously failed. Prosecutors say her husband sabotaged it.

He came to the U.S. for a beard competition. Law enforcement was waiting.

He was DEA’s toughest cop in east Louisiana. Now he’s facing corruption charges.