It was supposed to be business as usual – just another police dog drug search – at Kent County High School in Maryland's Eastern Shore on April 16, but it ended up with 16 students patted down and two female students ordered to strip down and be inspected by a female sheriff's deputy. No drugs or other contraband were found on any of the 18 students.
Drug dogs brought in by the Kent County Sheriff's Department at the behest of the school district sniffed about 250 book bags at the school and alerted on 18. The owners of those 18 book bags were the students who got searched.
Now, the Baltimore Sun reported, Kent County Sheriff John Price has conceded his deputies were on shaky legal ground. "We were acting under what we thought was probable cause, and we still believe there was probable cause," he said. "At the same time, it was an area that was unclear," Price said. "We didn't know it was a gray area."
He is reviewing the department's policy, he said. So is the school district. Superintendent Bonnie Ward told the Washington Post the high school policy on searches is being reviewed, but added that safe, drug-free schools are her "top priority."
But Ward's top priority may soon turn out to be defending the district from lawsuits filed by outraged students like Heather Gore and her parents. According to the Post, Gore, a varsity tennis player and majorette in the school marching band, broke down in tears as described her ordeal at a recent school board meeting held to discuss the raid.
"My name is Heather Gore," she began, sobbing before even the first word was out. "I am a sophomore at Kent County High School, and on April 16, I was forced to endure a partial strip-search due to a drug search carried out by the Kent County Sheriff's Office. The humiliation that I endured that day, and that I am still enduring, is overwhelming."
Heather, 15, and fellow sophomore Lacey Fernwalt, 16, were taken to a room with a school administrator, where a female deputy ordered them to partially undress. Lacey removed her pants, and the deputy, Marcellene Beck, looked inside her bra, she said. According to Heather, Beck told her to remove her skirt then lifted her tank top, exposing her breasts. Then Beck told Heather to spread her legs as the deputy tugged at the edges of her underwear. "I was crying and hyperventilating. I sat there in disbelief," she told the Post. "I'm still so embarrassed," she said.
Heather's mom, Patricia Gore, is looking for more than a simple policy review. An apology would be nice, she said. "I certainly have a lot of things besides lawyers' fees I need to spend money on, but my daughter shouldn't have had to go through all this, and neither should anyone else," she said.
The Gores may get some help from the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Deborah Jeon, managing attorney for the group's Eastern Shore office, told the Sun. "I think there is a very significant question as to how the entire sweep could be consistent with the Maryland regulation prohibiting investigative searches by a police officer unless there is a warrant," Jeon said. Those regulations also bar police from searching a student unless the student is under arrest or believed to be concealing a weapon, she added.