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Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Dec. 25, 1997
issue of Workers World newspaper
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High court okays strip search of Black children

By Leslie Feinberg

Most people wouldn’t need a law degree to determine that school authorities have no right to strip search second-grade children. Especially when the adults are white and the 8-year-olds are African American girls.

But the nine Supreme Court judges, who sit on the loftiest judicial bench in the United States, recently refused to hear the case, or even comment on it.

In doing so, the Supreme Court upheld an appeals court dismissal of a lawsuit that stemmed from an incident on May 1, 1992.

At that time, Cassandra Jenkins and Oneika McKenzie were second-graders at Graham Elementary School in Talladega, Ala. A white girl in their class told the teacher that $7 was missing from her purse. Several students reportedly accused Cassandra and Oneika of taking the money.

The teacher searched Cassandra’s backpack. She then took Cassandra and Oneika outside and questioned them. Another teacher, Susannah Herring, came out and told the children to take off their shoes and socks.

No money was found.

Herring and Melba Sirmon, a school guidance counselor, then took the girls into a school bathroom. The adults ordered the children to undress in separate toilet stalls and then come out naked.

Again, no money was found.

And yet, the children told their parents, a short time later they were each strip searched a second time by school authorities.

Cassandra and Oneika’s parents, furious at this racist humiliation and dehumanization of their children, angrily protested to the Talladega school board.

But the adults involved claimed the strip searches never happened. The school board dropped its investigation. Armed with Herring’s and Sirmon’s denials, the Office of Civil Rights also dismissed the charges, claiming insufficient evidence.

The girls’ parents sued Herring and Sirmon, but a federal judge threw out the case.

The parents, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, appealed. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal by an eight-to-three vote last June. The judges argued a technicality: The strip searches would not have been clearly unconstitutional in 1992.

The appeals court referred to the Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling that the constitutional right against unreasonable searches applies to students. But the judges did a legal somersault, finding that by 1992 the law barring searches of students "had not been developed in a concrete, factually similar context" so school personnel might not know such searches were unconstitutional.

So much for the bourgeois legal argument that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." The judges also ruled that Herring and Sirmon were entitled to "qualified immunity" from being sued.

Now the Supreme Court, by refusing to hear the case, has put its weight behind the appeals court’s racist ruling.

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