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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals finds that school administrators were not entitled to qualified immunity in civil rights lawsuit brought by high school student allegedly subjected to multiple strip searches in front of an open window

On February 4, 2022, in T.R. a Minor, v. Lamar County Board of Education, et al, No. 21-12424, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants in a 42 U.S.C. 1983 civil rights action brought by a high school student against school administrators and the County School Board for an alleged violation of the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. The school administrators suspected the student of smoking marijuana in a classroom and conducted two strip searches after finding marijuana stems and seeds and rolling papers in the student’s backpack. The Eleventh Circuit noted that while school searches are not subject to the same sort of probable cause analysis as searches in other contexts, the search must still be reasonable under the circumstances, which requires a two-fold inquiry as two whether (1) the action was justified in its inception, and (2) the search was conducted in a manner that was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the administrators’ suspicion that the student was hiding drugs under her clothing because no drugs were found in her belongings was not a specific suspicion, but rather a “general background possibility” which was insufficient to justify a strip search at its inception. The Eleventh Circuit also concluded that, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the search was unreasonable in its scope because it was allegedly conducted twice in front of an open window in the counselor’s office.