SYLVESTER, Ga. — About 900 students at a Georgia high school were groped by law enforcement officers during a drug sweep that was conducted without a warrant and didn’t yield any drugs, a federal lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit was filed by a human rights group on behalf of students at Worth County High after an April 14 incident when about 40 officers showed up at the school without advance notice.
They put the school on lockdown for four hours and ordered many students into hallways, where they were forced to stand spread eagle, the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, officers cupped boys’ genitals, touched girls’ vaginas, reached inside bras, touched girls’ bare breasts, patted their buttocks and placed their hands inside students’ underwear. No drugs were found.
Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby told WALB the searches were legal — despite not having warrants or permission from parents or the school system — because school administrators were present during the pat-downs.
Hobby told WALB he decided to conduct the drug search after law enforcement arrested some juveniles in connection with burglaries in March and uncovered evidence of drug activity at the school.
He said he probably would not conduct a similar search again because of community response, WALB said.
Parents were furious. Amaryllis Coleman told WALB that an officer reached below her daughter’s panty line during the search.
“The whole community is upset about this. Our children were violated and we’re banding together,” Coleman said.
The county school board is upset, too.
Tommy Coleman, the Worth County School Board attorney, said Hobby and deputies showed up with a target list of 13 suspects, but only three of those students were at school that day.
“The egregious thing that happened was he didn’t search just those individuals but he searched every single student at the school,” Coleman said. “There was aggressive searches and touching of undergarments and breast and genitalia by deputies.”
Coleman said the superintendent and principal have spoken to some of the parents.
“It’s been a matter of great public concern,” he said.
In the accounts given by nine students, female officers searched female students and male officers searched male students, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit describes the experience of a student identified as K.A., who was searched by deputy Brandi Whiddon.
“Sheriff Hobby entered K.A.’s classroom and ordered the students to line up in the hallway with their hands on the wall,” the suit said.
“Deputy Whiddon took one of K.A.’s arms, placed it higher up on the wall, and kicked her legs to open them wider. Whiddon pulled the front of K.A.’s bra away from her body by the underwire and flipped it up.
“Whiddon also looked down the back and front of K.A.’s dress. Whiddon slid her hands from one of K.A.’s ankles up to her pelvic area.
“Whiddon’s hands went underneath K.A.’s dress as Whiddon felt up K.A.’s leg. Whiddon’s hands stopped on and cupped K.A.’s vaginal area and buttocks.
“Whiddon then slid her hands down to the other ankle. Whiddon was wearing gloves, but did not change them before or after her search of K.A.”
The lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights says sheriff’s deputies and officers from other unnamed agencies conducted the search.
Hobby, four named deputies and 25 officers unnamed officers were listed as defendants. The plaintiffs are nine students identified only by initials. The suit seeks unspecified damages.