Now, strip, kids

Aug 23, 2000 at 12:00 am
The day started out as normal as a school day could be at Whitmore Lake High School just north of Ann Arbor. And the second-period gym class could not have been more uneventful.

But when that class ended and the students returned to their locker rooms, things changed drastically and irrevocably. On the floor of the girls’ locker room was a backpack. About $350, most of it meant for hiring a limousine to take students to the upcoming prom, was missing.

But it was not just the robbery that made May 24 so remarkable. It was also what followed. About 20 gym students, none of whom were under reasonable suspicion of committing a crime, were strip-searched by members of the high school faculty in violation of the school’s own policies and, the American Civil Liberties Union contends, the laws of the land.

It’s one more example, says the ACLU’s Michael J. Steinberg, “of a trend among school administrators and state legislators to infringe upon the rights of students. We must stop these people from turning schoolhouses into jailhouses.”

Steinberg says that incidents from random backpack searches to suppression of speech are on the increase in schools — to the detriment of students’ rights. The ACLU is currently in court in Genesee County, for instance, challenging a Grand Blanc High School policy requiring all student-athletes to sign a form agreeing to drug testing, regardless of whether they show signs of drug use or not.

Students at Whitmore Lake were left dazed and embarrassed by their treatment. At least one student says she cannot envision returning to school Sept. 5 when classes resume.

The school superintendent blames the teachers for not knowing the district policy. The teachers blame the administration (for never telling them about the policy) and the Northfield Township police (who arrived midway through the strip searches and told teachers to continue). The police, in turn, say they never authorized a strip search.

Little of what went on is in dispute.

The boys remained in the locker room while the girls went back to the gym. The boys were taken one by one into the shower room by a male teacher and told to lift their shirts and drop their pants and underwear.

Two Northfield Township police officers arrived and told female staff members to search the girls in the same manner that the boys were searched. The female acting principal and two other female staff members gathered the girls together and told them to lift their blouses and drop their pants, one by one.

Where the fault lies may be determined in court. Last week the American Civil Liberties, on behalf of students and their parents, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against the school district, the police officers and teachers who conducted the search. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Whitmore Lake Schools Superintendent Glenn Bachman says he is not to blame. District guidelines provide that only police are to perform strip searches and that they be done in a private room.

“Those guidelines and policies are in the principal’s office in every building. … I would not say that they were correct in performing the strip search the way they did.”

Teacher consultant Sue Langen, one of the staff members who conducted the strip search of the girls, says she is not to blame. She quotes Northfield Township Police Officer Randall Mayrand as telling her, “You have to search the girls just like the boys were searched.” Did she interpret that as meaning to have the girls drop their pants and lift their blouses?

“When a police officer tells me to do something, I’m going to do something. They’re the officers of the court. I assumed they knew what to do. I’m not a lawyer.”

As for the district policy, Langen said, “I didn’t know we had one.”

Northfield Township police say they are not to blame. Department spokesman Lt. Dennis Gruschow says the police did not arrive until after the boys had been strip-searched. He agrees that Officer Mayrand told the female staff member to search the girls in the same manner as the boys.

“He also continued on to indicate that it was his belief that the shoes, socks and property were what was being searched. He was not aware of the scope of the search at that time.”

Gruschow said department policies prohibit Mayrand from speaking to the media. The money has never been recovered and the police have labeled the case inactive.

Teacher Jay Munz, who conducted the strip search of the boys, refused to speak with Metro Times.

Peggy Shumway did speak, but only in a wavering voice, as she reluctantly recalled the incident. She was a sophomore at Whitmore Lake High the morning she was strip-searched.

“We were all in a circle. Everyone had to drop their pants and lift up their shirts. They didn’t take us one by one. We were all together. It was very embarrassing.

“I don’t feel like I want to go back to school,” she said. “I don’t know if this is ever going to happen again. People talk to me about school, but I don’t want to go back.”

Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, said the strip search was illegal and unwarranted given that there was not imminent danger to the students as would be the case if the presence of a bomb or a gun were suspected.

“In order for the search to be legal … you have to have reason to believe that the contraband is on that student. And the search must be reasonable in scope,” Steinberg said.

He said the Whitmore Lake incident meets neither of those standards.

“Random strip search is one of the most egregious violations of student rights imaginable. What’s next, body-cavity searches?”

Tom Schram is a Detroit-area freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]