Students at Worth County High School in Sylvester, Ga., have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against their county sheriff after he ordered what the complaint describes as a schoolwide drug sweep involving pat-down searches of hundreds of teenagers.
On April 14, Sheriff Jeff Hobby and dozens of deputies came to Worth County High School searching for students in possession of illicit substances. According to the students' legal complaint, they proceeded to go to every classroom and physically search nearly every student present for drugs. The deputies, the lawsuit alleges, used “pat down” searches, with some deputies touching female students’ breasts and male students’ genitalia.
Tommy Coleman, a lawyer for the district, corroborated the students' account of the search. “I thought the [students'] complaint in the suit very accurately described what happened,” he said. “We'd like for it to be resolved in the best interests of these kids.”
The district hasn't joined the lawsuit on behalf of the students because it lacks the standing to do so, Coleman said. The lawsuit contends that the students, not the school district, were harmed by the searches.
In the aftermath of the search, the sheriff told local media that the pat-down searches of students were legal because school administrators were present. He also said he believed drugs were present at the school, and that a separate drug search performed several weeks earlier by police from the city of Sylvester had not been thorough enough.
Neither search turned up any illicit drugs, according to Coleman.
In the days after the search, the sheriff's office acknowledged in a news release that at least one deputy had touched students in an inappropriate manner.
“After the pat down was conducted it was discovered that one of the deputies had exceeded the instructions given by the Sheriff and conducted a pat down of some students that was more intrusive than instructed by the Sheriff,” the statement said. “Upon discovery of the deputy's actions, the Sheriff has taken corrective action to insure that this behavior will not occur again.”
The sheriff's office did not provide more detail on the “corrective action” in the release, and it did not respond to a follow-up request about what that action entailed. Hobby's office also refused multiple requests for an interview and declined to answer repeated requests from The Washington Post for more details about the school search.
The case is an extreme example of how the school system can become a battleground in the nation's war on drugs. Law enforcement officials and school administrators have occasionally brought zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime policies into the nation's classrooms, often with counterproductive results.
Meanwhile, teen drug and alcohol use is approaching historic lows. Experts cite a variety of reasons this may be the case. Lower rates of teen tobacco use may mean that fewer students go on to try harder substances. And the rise of social media means more teens are spending time with their peers online, rather than in the real world, where it may be easier to obtain drugs.
Worth County High School students are upset over their treatment by Hobby and his deputies.
J.E., one of the plaintiffs who is being identified only by his initials because he is a minor, said in an interview with The Washington Post that when deputies arrived at his 10th-grade agriculture class, they marched the students out to the hall, lining them up, girls on one side of the hallway and boys on the other.
The deputies, J.E. says, made everyone put their palms on the wall, spread their legs and take their shoes off.
J.E. says that during his search, the deputy put his hands in J.E.'s back pockets and then under his shirt. He then, J.E. says, rubbed down both of the student’s legs from his thighs to his ankles, and back up between them.
“He came up under my privates and then he grabbed my testicles twice,” J.E. said in an interview. “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.”
J.E.'s allegations of improper contact are part of a legal complaint filed jointly by nine students after outraged parents contacted Horsley Begnaud LLC, a civil rights law firm based in Atlanta.
According to the students' complaint, some of the deputies — Hobby's office brought more than two dozen, the complaint says — stuck their hands in students' bras and underwear. The complaint includes allegations that some deputies cupped the genitals of the boys and exposed the breasts of some of the girls to their classmates.
Sometimes the deputies wore gloves. Other times they didn't, according to the complaint.
Another student involved with the lawsuit was in a different class than J.E. at the time of the search but described a similar search procedure: Deputies ordered students out of his ninth-grade literature class and into the hallway, segregated them by gender, and then systematically physically searched each one.
“Some people were crying,” the ninth-grader said in an interview. “Kids weren't allowed to go home; they weren't allowed to tell their parents” during the search.
The suit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. In their complaint, the students contend the “unlawful and intrusive” searches violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments.
The sheriff had no warrant to perform the search, according to the complaint. Coleman, the lawyer for the school district, says the sheriff's office told school officials they suspected 13 students of possessing drugs in setting up the search. It's unclear what information formed the basis for this suspicion — lawyers for the students said in an interview they haven't seen it yet, and the sheriff's office declined to provide details to The Post.
“I'm not aware of anything like this ever happening in Georgia,” Mark Begnaud, one of the students' lawyers, said in an interview. “It's obviously unconstitutional, a textbook definition of police overreach.”
Coleman, the district lawyer, said the school knew deputies were planning a search that day, but it was unaware that it would involve pat-downs of nearly every student.
“I don't think anybody in the school system had any idea that it would be of the nature of what actually happened,” Coleman said. “I've been doing this a long time, and I've never heard of anybody doing that kind of thing.”
Coleman said the school district did not authorize the pat-downs of the students, adding that school officials lacked the legal authority to challenge the sheriff's actions. “Sheriffs in Georgia have pretty broad authority,” Coleman said. “That authority doesn't end at the schoolhouse door.”
Coleman said that law enforcement officers may on occasion pat down individual students, in the presence of a school administrator, if there is probable cause to believe that the student is in possession of illegal contraband. But he added he doesn't even know if the sheriff had probable cause on the 13 students Coleman said were originally targeted — to say nothing of the hundreds who were not on that list but searched anyway.
Hobby's search included an information blackout while it was going on. The students were required to surrender their cellphones, J.E. said, and parents calling into the school say they were unable to get information about what was happening.
Parents were not warned of the search, which lasted four hours, nor were they allowed to contact their children while it was going on. “When I found out about the search, I called the school. I wanted to know what was going on,” said Jonathan Luke, the stepfather of a student. “They flat out said we went on a lockdown and we can't give any other details.”
The parents and students involved with the lawsuit vow to press their case until Hobby is removed from office. “We really want Sheriff Hobby gone,” J.E. said.
The students' lawyers then hope to get their lawsuit classified as a class action, which would allow them to represent all students involved in the search at the school, not just the nine named in the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs are awaiting the sheriff office's formal answer to the suit, which must be delivered within 60 days.