Two female students at Capital High School (CHS) have filed a class action suit in federal court against Santa Fe Public Schools over being searched at their school’s prom, says the Santa Fe New Mexican. The suit alleges that SFPS violated the students’ constitutional rights by performing “overly intrusive searches” of their bodies and belongings at the school’s prom in April 2011. In the suit, the students contend a female guard for Associated Security Industries, which was contracted by the district to provide security for the event, put her hands on senior Candice Herrera’s breasts and bra and also ordered her and her sister to spread their arms and legs while the guard conducted a body search.
The older Herrera sister claims the guard “molested” her. The suit states the guard “proceeded to lift Candice’s dress above the middle of her thighs and examined her bare legs,” in front of other students and district personnel, according to the complaint. The complaint also asks for a temporary restraining order to prevent further “unconstitutional searches by SFPS, its employees, and agents at future student gatherings” that Herrera may attend, including Santa Fe High School’s upcoming prom. School officials confiscated nail clippers, hand lotion and prescription medicine from Herrera’s purse before letting her enter the prom, said Reed Colfax, Herrera’s attorney. When she tried to retrieve her medicine after the prom, she was told it had been discarded.
Colfax said Herrera and her father, Vincent, complained to CHS Principal Melanie Romero about the search shortly after prom weekend. Romero asked Herrera to write up a formal report, but told the family that the school has the right to search students. According to Colfax, the Herrera family then complained to Associate Superintendent Susan Lujan. Lujan also said the district is free to search students at such events, and said she would bring the issue up with Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez.
Gutierrez confirmed that Lujan spoke with Vincent Herrera. Herrera did tell Lujan about his daughters being touched around their breasts and bras, but said nothing about their skirts being lifted up above the thigh, according to Gutierrez. She confirmed that security officers conducted pat-down searches under same-gender guidelines. “It’s unfortunate that we have to do this, but we have had problems in the past with students bringing in illegal contraband to prom,” Gutierrez said. “We have to check the convention center several times during that day because alcohol gets taped to sinks in the bathrooms.”
According to the district’s code of conduct, “Intrusive searches, such as pat-downs, may be conducted only on the basis of reasonable suspicion of the individual student to be searched.” Colfax said that in researching the case, “The general rule is schools have to have reasonable suspicion that a particular student is engaged in wrong-doing before they do any sort of search — and certainly searches of possessions and bodily searches.”
Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, 5/17/11, By Robert Nott
[Editor's Note: In order for school officials to justify a more intrusive search, there must be a greater the risk of harm at stake. For example, in Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, 129 S. Ct. 2633 (2009), school officials conducted a strip search looking for ibuprofen tablets. The U.S. Supreme Court held the search was a violation of the student's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. In May 2010, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that high school officials who conducted a strip search of students looking for credit cards and cash were not entitled qualified immunity from the students’ suit alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. A summary of the opinion is available at the first link below.
As noted by SFPS' superintendent, the searches were conducted to prevent students from bringing alcohol to the prom. In February 2011, an Associated Press (AP) article in the Columbus Dispatch reported that Medina High School in Ohio planned to use breathalyzers to conduct random testing of students attending school dances as a means of combating alcohol use at school social events. A summary of the AP article is available at the second link below.]