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Mother suing Clayton Schools over strip search

Angela Dawson, the mother of a Clayton County middle school student, has filed suit against the Clayton County School District, Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, former Eddie White Academy Assistant Principal Tyrus McDowell, and a former School Resource Officer, Ricky Redding.

Dawson filed the lawsuit, Wednesday, alleging that her son, who was a seventh-grader at Eddie White Academy, in Hampton, was improperly stripped-searched at the school last year.

According to a police report on the incident, on Feb. 8, 2011, a school resource officer and staff members at Eddie White Academy, were told by one pupil that another pupil, Dawson’s son, was in possession of illegal substances –– suspected marijuana –– while on school grounds. Four students were then taken to Redding's office where a search took place.

The report stated that all four students were present in the same room and were instructed to "disrobe," and “pull out their underwear,” to allow a visual search for contraband, "exposing their private parts."

“Marijuana was found on three of the four students," according to the report.

However, the lawsuit declared that the plaintiff’s son, who is referred to as “D.H.,” did not have marijuana in his possession.

One of the students mentioned in the complaint had told school officials that D.H. and another student had marijuana. “D.H.’s pockets and book bag were then searched, and no drugs were found,” according to the lawsuit. The accuser then “informed the school resource officer and vice principal, at the time, he had lied about D.H. having marijuana in his possession,” the lawsuit alleges. “However, D.H. was not able to return to class. The report indicated that D.H. begged to be taken to the bathroom for the search, but his request was denied. His parents were not called before school officials searched him,” the suit continues.

According to the legal complaint, “D.H. was degraded, traumatized, embarrassed, humiliated and profoundly affected by the defendants’ actions, causing fear, anguish, and emotional distress, which inhibits his personal and educational growth and progress, as well as [his] ability to trust persons in positions of authority, and adults in general.”

The legal complaint says he was “taunted by other students for having been stripped-searched and [wrongly] suspected of drug activities, and [he, now] carries the Nickname “Superman” from the underwear he [had] worn that day.”

Gerry Weber, the attorney for Angela Dawson and her son, said this is a violation of the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment Rights.

Weber said this case is similar to an incident he handled several years ago, in Clayton County. He said he sued Clayton County Schools after an entire fifth-grade class was strip-searched by a teacher and security officer, looking for $26 missing from a fund-raiser envelope. He said, from that lawsuit, an appeals court ruled that the strip searches were unconstitutional, but also that state law protected school officials from being sued at that time.

“Unless there’s suspicion of a weapon, according to the law, it’s unconstitutional for school officials to strip-search students for drugs,” said Weber.

In earlier, published reports, Chief Deputy Garland Watkins, of the Clayton County Sheriff's Office, said his office followed proper protocol, and launched an investigation [of the incident at Eddie White Academy] through its internal affairs department.

According Watkins, Ricky Redding [the SRO connected to the incident] was "inconsistent" in his verbal and written statements. "He was not truthful in the reports, and he also refused to testify."

Redding was fired from the sheriff’s department for failing to stop the searches, according to published reports. Last year, Redding announced that he would campaign to be the next sheriff of Clayton County, despite the allegations that he had failed to stop the strip searches of the students.

According to Redding's attorney, Mary Huber, not only would Redding continue to pursue his election campaign, he was appealing his firing to the Clayton County Civil Service Board.

Huber said students were only instructed by Redding to remove their socks and shoes, and “school personnel were responsible for the strip down.”

According to the investigative report, Redding told investigators that “it was his understanding, based upon his training, that the principal could strip-search students suspected of drug use.”

The lawsuit filed Wednesday, however, argues that “no policy was ever developed by the [Clayton County School System] regarding strip searches, or when personal body searches could be conducted.”

Officials with Clayton County Schools could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

According to the suit, Dawson is seeking “compensatory damages –– the amount not specified, punitive damages against McDowell and Redding, and [the removal of] the details of the strip search from her son’s record,” as well as “reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses ...”