Parents of two sixth-grade students sued the district after an assistant principal ordered a mass strip search of the underwear of 22 girls. The search occurred when the assistant principal and a school police officer were brought in to investigate a claim that $50 was missing. The officer suggested “that girls like to hide things in their bras and panties,” so the assistant principal took all 22 girls in a choir class to the female school nurse. One at a time, the nurse took the girls into a bathroom, where she “checked around the waistband of their panties,” loosened their bras, and checked under their shirts. The girls were instructed to “lift their shirts so they were exposed from the shoulder to the waist.” No parents were notified before the search, despite the girls’ requests. No money was found.

The court dimissed the lawsuit even though the district admitted that the search violated the girls’ constitutional rights. The parents appealed, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the lawsuit, finding that the district had failed to train its employees in how to conduct a search. In doing so, the court noted that, in order to legally search a student, school officials must generally have reasonable suspicion that the search will reveal evidence of a violation of school rules or the law. When the search is of the student’s underwear, however, additional requirements apply. The court said underwear searches are embarrassing, frightening and humiliating. Strip searches implicate fundamental Fourth Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that a search of a student’s underwear is impermissibly intrusive unless school officials reasonably suspect either that the object of the search is dangerous, or that it is actually likely to be hidden in the student’s underwear. 

The Supreme Court has held that a governmental entity can be liable for failure to train employees when it enacts a valid policy, but fails to train its employees to implement it in a constitutional manner. In order to prove that this has occurred, the plaintiff must be able to show that the inadequate training is so likely to result in a violation of constitutional rights that it can be said that the governmental entity was deliberately indifferent to the need for training.

In this case, the Fifth Circuit Court found that the district permitted its school officials to conduct invasive searches of students, but provided no training about how to do it legally. It noted that the principal gave the assistant principal who conducted the search a written reprimand that primarily focused on the fact that the search was conducted in order to find “items other than ‘contraband’” and did not criticize the search for invading the underwear of 22 preteen girls without particularized suspicion. It also contained a directive that “in the future, if you feel a student must have a search requiring a strip search, please notify me before proceeding.”

The court found that these directives showed that the district expected that the assistant principal would exercise her authority to conduct searches and that the district knew (or should have known) with a high degree of certainty that she would in fact conduct such a search. Under such facts, there is an obvious need for some form of training.