Lawyers, families say 5 girls strip-searched at school

School officials in Atlantic forced five teenage girls to take off their clothing for a search after a classmate reported $100 missing from her purse, according to the girls' families and two lawyers.

The classmate and a female counselor stood watch in the girls' locker room at Atlantic High School as the five girls removed their clothing, lifted up their underwear, and in one case took off all her clothing, according to lawyers Ed Noethe of Council Bluffs and Matt Hudson of Harlan.

Strip-searching is illegal in Iowa schools.

Dan Crozier, the interim superintendent of the Atlantic school district, said the search took place Aug. 21, the third day of school, during a gym class in the last period of the day.

Crozier said faculty members denied it was a strip-search. "According to our board policy, it was an allowable search," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that no school official has free rein to do intimate searches of students. Making a girl pull the waistband of her underwear away from her body constituted a strip-search, the court ruled.

Michelle West, whose sophomore daughter was one of the Atlantic girls searched, believes there was no justification for the teachers' actions. "It's not like it was a firearm. No one was in any danger. There was no reason for the girls to be strip-searched," she said.

Families said the girls have reacted differently to the embarrassment of the search, and at least one was deeply troubled by it. Three of the five girls' parents hired lawyers, and a fourth family said they intend to do so. They are considering a lawsuit.

The Register chose not to identify the girls.

The superintendent acknowledged that no money was found in the girls' possession, but he declined to share details about the search.

"I guess I really can't comment on that because of confidentiality of those involved," Crozier said.

The girls told their parents that after the classmate reported the missing money, gym teacher Tim Duff consulted with Assistant Principal Paul Croghan. The girls said a new female counselor, whose name they were unsure of, then was called in to supervise the search in the locker room. Crozier confirmed those facts Friday.

The older sister of one of the girls said the teen took off her bra and underwear after specifically asking if she had to do so. She complied because she did not want to cause a scene, the sister said.

Crozier said the faculty denied the searches were strip-searches, but he added that there are different interpretations of what the term means.

"According to the people that we've talked to the first time, and I've talked to them maybe once or twice, they've said it would not fall into that category," he said. "I'm real careful about saying that because it could be interpreted differently."

State education officials said the law is clear — school officials cannot force students to disrobe to search for contraband.

"There's an absolute prohibition on strip-searches in Iowa," said Carol Greta, legal counsel for the Iowa Department of Education, who was speaking in general and not referring to the Atlantic case. "It's an absolute no-no."

The Iowa Board of Education Examiners, which has the power to discipline teachers for unethical or illegal behavior, investigated a similar complaint of a strip-search in 2005. The principal and a guidance counselor at Beckman High School in Dyersville claimed they did not know their actions constituted a strip-search.

Both were reprimanded but kept their licenses, state records show.

In the Atlantic case, none of the boys in the gym class was searched because "that incident didn't happen when there were any boys around," Crozier said.

The superintendent declined to answer more questions, but in a written statement he said: "The district was made aware of a considerable amount of money that was lost at school. The actions taken were in compliance with the school district policies."

West, the parent, said the girls all complied with the directive to remove their clothing.

"The idea was, 'If we refuse we're guilty,' " the mother said. "One girl said, 'Well, if I say no, I'm not taking my clothes off, for the rest of my life I'm going to seem guilty if I don't.' That really upset me."

Each girl stripped in varying degrees, families and the lawyers said.

Hudson's client, who is 15, "was asked to remove all of her clothing including her undergarments," he said.

One mother said the girl refused to take off her underwear in front of everyone, but went around a corner and did so.

Some of the girls didn't take off their underwear because it was more revealing than the other girls', making it more obvious that nothing was hidden underneath, said Noethe, one of the lawyers.

Hudson said, "Someone asked if they could just lift up their bra and they were told that wasn't good enough."

One of Noethe's clients was searched twice, he said.

"She was told to take her clothes off and put them back on, then told to do it again because we need you to take your bra off," Noethe said.

The search occurred in the presence of the student who reported the missing $100, the lawyers said.

Hudson said: "I think Ed and I are in agreement that we just find it inexcusable and unacceptable and are very surprised to find school officials were unaware of the Iowa law and a very recent Supreme Court decision."

The Iowa Legislature in 1986 passed a law banning school strip-searches.

Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said: "If a strip-search occurred as it's been described to us, it was an absolutely intolerable act by the government and there should be very high accountability."

Young people who are ordered to take off their clothing in front of a stranger whose intention is to search them "creates an anxiety that is extremely heightened, especially with kids in their formative years," Stone said.

"The fact that the girls were in a locker room means absolutely nothing. They weren't taking off their clothes to go back to class. They were taking off their clothes because a person in authority has demanded they take off their clothes. That type of psychological stress can be long-lasting."

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