Are Schools Invading Your Privacy?

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Jessica DuLong

Published April 1, 2005

Are educators violating your rights as they try to keep schools free of drugs?

At 8:15 a.m. on April 16, 2004, sophomore Heather Gore was in art class painting when a familiar voice rang out over the loudspeaker. “The school is on lockdown,” announced the principal of Maryland’s Kent County High School. Police officers lurked in the hallway with dogs, waiting to search for drugs.

Although Kent County doesn’t have a rampant drug problem, the school still conducts random searches. Since Heather doesn’t do drugs or hang out with anyone who does, she wasn’t fazed when a school administrator came into class and told everyone to leave their bags behind and go in another classroom while dogs sniffed their belongings.

Laughing and joking, Heather and her classmates left the room. Sitting in the other room waiting, Heather wished they’d hurry up so she could get back to painting.

Suddenly, the school administrator walked in and told Heather one of the dogs had “hit on” her bag. She was Shocked and confused; there were definitely no drugs in it. Sure enough, when police searched the bag they found nothing.

But it wasn’t over. “They’re going to have to search you,” woman said. Horrified, Heather followed her back to the the classroom, where a female deputy sheriff was waiting alone.

While the administrator watched, the deputy removed Heather’s glasses and felt through her hair, then told her to take off her shoes. Heather was annoyed, but she thought she had no choice but to do as she was told – after all, this was the police.

As she handed over her shoes, the deputy asked, “Are you wearing a bra?” She wasn’t. But before she could answer the deputy reached out and lifted Heather’s tank top, exposing her breasts. Humiliated, Heather burst into tears.

The deputy told her to remove her skirt. Sobbing harder, Heather took her skirt off. “I tried to make sure I was covered up, but she was pulling on the sides of my underwear,” recalls Heather, now 16. “When she moved to the front, I really started crying. It was so embarrassing.”

Meanwhile, Heather’s friend Jessi Bedell was told that her bag had been hit on too. She was patted down in her cheerleading uniform by a female officer, while a male officer and a female vice principal looked on.

When Jessi started to cry the male officer told her, “Calm down. This is a learning experience.” But Jessi, now 16, was appalled. “I follow all the rules, I do everything I’m supposed to do,” she says. “It didn’t seem fair.”

In the end, no drugs were found – on Jessi, Heather, or any of the other 16 targeted students.

the great debate

Kent County is just one of many school districts across he country that are searching bags, lockers, and students themselves. Officials say they’re just trying to prevent teens from getting addicted to drugs.

“Research shows that people who don’t start using drugs before the age of 18 are very unlikely to end up having a drug problem,” says Tom Riley, a spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “So if you want to save lives, you focus on people between 13 and 17.”

But some students feel that certain practices violate their privacy – and the American Civil liberties Union, an organization that helps defend the rights granted to people under the U.S. Constitution, agrees.

“It’s completely clear that strip searches schools are one of the ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ that the Constitution prohibits,” says Deborah Jeon, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

Each school district has its own policy about drug searches, and people like Jeon think they often go against the Constitution. So it’s hard to know what rules to follow.

Even Kent County Sheriff John Price, who at first defended the searches of Heather and Jessi, later told newspapers that he wasn’t so sure either: “It as an area that’s unclear. We didn’t know it was a gray area.”

public humiliation

That gray area nearly ruined 14-year-old Chloe Smith’s reputation. In December 2004, dogs hit on Chloe’s purse as she sat in another room during a drug search at her middle school in Mustang, Oklahoma.

When the assistant principal searched the bag, she found pills. She wasn’t sure what the pills were for, but it didn’t matter. Any drugs – even legal medication – are against school policy unless they’re kept in the nurse’s office.

The pills were actually prescribed hormone Chloe was taking for polycystic ovary syndrome, a gynecological problem. Chloe didn’t want anyone to know she had the condition; she’d kept hidden from her friends and even her stepfather.

When confronted, Chloe explained this to her principal, and her mother verified her story. But the school policy was firm and Chloe was given two choices: be suspended for a year and repeat eighth grade, or be suspended for 10 days and submit to random urine drug tests once a month, plus drug abuse counseling.

Chloe was horrified. “I’ve never one drugs and I’m not ever going to do them,” she says. But I was being treated like a drug addict. It seemed so unfair.”

She decided to fight back. Her stepfather called e American Civil Liberties Union to see if someone there could help. An attorney with the group met with school officials, and in the end the school agreed to lessen her suspension to five days and not force her to go through any drug counseling.

Still, Chloe says the experience was humiliating. Everyone had seen her get singled out during the search, clean out her locker, and then disappear from school for a week – so it looked like she was a drug user.

“I didn’t want all my teachers and friends to think I was a drug addict and lose respect for me,” she explains. “I felt like I had no choice but to go public so people wouldn’t start rumors about me.”

Chloe decided the best way to put to rest any rumors would be to tell the truth to a local newspaper – even though everyone would know about the private health condition that she’d tried so hard to hide.

broken trust

One thing’s for sure: Until authorities figure out clear out rules about what’s legal and what’s not In schools, many students are going to continue to be searched. And groups like the Drug Policy Alliance worry that relationships between students and teachers are suffering.

Trust is being eroded, and students are feeling resentful. In the end, that could lead to more problems in schools if students rebel.

Thinking back on that embarrassing day last year when her vice principal stood by and let the officer search her, Jessi says, “It really upset me that no one stopped what was going on. “

Adds Heather, “I still don’t understand why it had to go that far. “

The ACLU expects more and more of these cases to end up in court. In fact, Heathor and Jessi are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the Kent County school system and the local police force.

The girls can’t talk about the details while the case is still pending. But Heather says that her goal isn’t to get money. She just wants authorities to settle the ambiguity of the law so that other girls won’t have to go through the same ordeal she did. “If nobody speaks up, ” Heather explains, “nobody’s ever going to know what our rights are.”