A human rights organization is filing a lawsuit against Georgia’s Worth County Sheriff’s Office after 900 students were searched by law enforcement officers in an unannounced and unprecedented drug sweep.
The incident prompting the suit occurred midway through April.
Several dozen police officers converged on the school without advance notice, ordering students into hallways and conducting searches of property and person. Boys and girls were made to stand spread eagle outside their classrooms as cops explored their bodies for illicit substances.
According to the lawsuit, officers ‘cupped boys’ genitals, touched girls’ vaginas, reached inside bras, touched girls’ bare breasts, patted their buttocks and placed their hands inside students’ underwear.’
The investigation amounted to little beyond the lawsuit, as no drugs were found after delving into the lockers, property, and bodies of several hundred students.
The organization supporting the lawsuit, the Southern Center for Human Rights, is representing outraged parents who say the Worth County Sheriff’s Department crossed a line too far.
“Our goal is not a dollar figure,” said Jonathon Luke, father of two. “Our goal is to prevent this from happening to any other kid in America. Our goal is to teach these kids, even if you are the sheriff, you have to have consequences for your actions.”
Nearly two dozen parents had signed a contract initiating a lawsuit less than a week after the search occurred.
The Sheriff’s Department, while admitting their investigation has been the focus of some pointed concerns, has nevertheless issued a series of defensive statements.
Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby reportedly gave a telephone interview to Georgia network WALB News 10. Although he declined to go on camera, he said he felt the search was ‘necessary.’ He had requested K-9 narcotics search units from another Georgia law enforcement agency.
Since school administrators were present during the personal searches of students, Hobby claimed, the department had neither done any wrong nor infringed on any rights.
Hobby apparently felt the entire school needed to be investigated after several teens were arrested for a residential burglary in March. Information gleamed from speaking with the suspects seemed to suggest there was ‘drug activity’ at Worth County High School, although the sheriff didn’t seem to remark on how the arrest of a handful of teenagers merited searching every one of their classmates.
Interim Worth County Superintendent Lawrence Walters said he was sympathetic to parents and hadn’t explicitly authorized the search.
“We did not give permission but they didn’t ask for permission, he just said, the sheriff, that he was going to do it after spring break,” Walters said.
WALB News says Walters had assumed the sweep would be similar to the ones he’d seen in his 40-year career in education, and had been under the impression that there’d be no touching or mass searches of students.
The Southern Center for Human Rights called the searches ‘highly intrusive’ and questioned their legality.
“The Sheriff’s search of Worth County High School students went far beyond what the law permits,” said SCHR attorney Crystal Redd. “The Sheriff had no authority to subject the entire student population to physical searches of their persons, and certainly none to search students in such an aggressive and inappropriate manner.”
An attorney for the school board, Tommy Coleman, also commented on the investigation.
Coleman said the Sheriff and his deputies had shown up with a list of 13 suspects but expanded their search to include almost the entirety of the student body.
Of the 13 suspects fingered by law enforcement, only three were at school on the day of the narcotics sweep.
“The egregious thing that happened was he didn’t just search those individuals but he searched every single student at the school,” Coleman said. “There was aggressive searches and touching of undergarments and breast and genitalia by deputies.”
“It’s been a matter of great public concern,” Coleman added in what may be a bleak understatement.