Another school day, another strip-search

Was asking five girls to undress a constitutional violation -- or sexual assault?

Published September 9, 2009 3:10PM (EDT)

School's in! September's here; pencils are sharpened, apples are polished, and -- in one Iowa town where administrators' summer reading list clearly did not include Safford Unified School Dist. #1 v. Redding -- female students are strip-searched on suspicion of theft.

The Des Moines Register reported over the weekend (link via Pandagon) that on Aug. 21, the third day of school, a student at Atlantic High reported $100 missing from her purse. Five girls who were somehow deemed persons of interest in the case were asked to strip in front of a female counselor and their accuser (!?). (No boys were involved because apparently none were around when the theft was believed to have occurred.) Lawyers (yuh!) for the girls' families told the Register that (paraphrase) each girl stripped in varying degrees. One 15-year-old "was asked to remove all of her clothing including her undergarments." Another asked if she could lift up her bra and was told that wasn't good enough. One was searched twice. At least two were permitted not to remove their underwear because it was more revealing than the others' and therefore an unlikely hiding place. [End of repellent soft-core juvie prison scene]

"The idea was, 'If we refuse we're guilty,'" the mother of one of the girls told the Register. "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.'"

The missing cash did not turn up.

As you may recall, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 (Hint: Tarence Clomas) in June declaring that schools cannot force children to remove their clothing unless student safety is at risk. (The justices found that middle school officials in Arizona had violated the 4th Amendment ban on unreasonable searches when they ordered then-eighth grader Savanna Redding to strip to her underwear on suspicion of carrying contraband ibuprofen.) Strip-searches of students by school officials are also illegal under Iowa law, as well as under the law of the universe, section 4, paragraph 19: "You pretty much don't tell a girl to take off her clothes unless they're on fire. What are you vile sociopaths thinking?"

The school activities director, who was said to be involved in initating the search, has reportedly been placed on administrative leave pending the ongoing investigation.

The incident has, not surprisingly, become the talk of Atlantic, home to a Coca-Cola bottling plant and  "the second-largest mini-convention of Coca-Cola collectors" in the States. Parents who attended last night's district school board meeting -- including parents of the girls involved, said to have been advised by their lawyers to withhold comment -- were assured that the school would get to the bottom of what happened. "This is going to be solved. It's a long investigation. We'll take our time so we do it right, by policy, by law and we appreciate your patience and your support," the school board president said

The one other parent who spoke said, "I have to say I do question having my daughter come [to school] until I know that the district will not tolerate such actions. I want to feel that my child will come here and be safe and that her constitutional rights will be upheld."

Constitutional rights are at issue here, sure. And some of the parents are reportedly considering filing lawsuits. But where are the charges of sexual assault? Or sexual abuse in the third degree? Or sexual exploitation by a school employee? (Iowa state law, section 709.15.) The local police, after interviewing one of the girls and several administrators, bounced the matter back to the school, saying the incident did not involve criminal activity.

Seriously? The mind, freshly scrubbed from the above juvie prison scene, reels. How is it not possible to see this for what it is? I mean, even writing about it at all (arguably a necessary means of building public pressure) feels pervy. When it comes to the sexualization -- and sexual exploitation -- of young girls, it seems, we are still in deep, gross, two-faced denial. We freak out about it, sort of, but we don't call it what it is. As one Pandagon commenter observed: "So on the one hand we have adults punishing teenage girls for sending nude photos to their boyfriends, or posing in their bras, and charging them with child pornography -- but on the other we have judges who distribute photos of underage girls being assaulted and school officials who force them to strip naked." 

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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