A federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week against a south Georgia sheriff offers new details of the bizarre school-wide search of hundreds of students where deputies allegedly touched girls’ breasts, vaginal areas and groped boys in their groins.
One of the nine Worth County High School students who filed the lawsuit, identified as K.P., told the AJC that the April 14 search was “very, very scary.” She said the incident was stuck in her memory and it colored the rest of her senior year.
The day of the search, she said, students didn’t know what was happening when an announcement was made early in the day that the school was on lock-down.
One-by-one, the classes were directed to the hall. K.P. said they were told to face the wall — boys in one line, girls in the other. The students were told to put their hands against the wall as the deputies conducted the body searches.
She said the female deputy inappropriately touched and groped her breast. She lifted up her bra and touched her vaginal area through her jean pockets, according to K.P.
“I was just scared because I had never been put in that position,” she said. “I felt sexually violated….I was very angry.”
K.P’s mother, Amaryllis Coleman, said the episode shattered her daughter’s trust in police.
“That was her first encounter with law enforcement, ever,” said Coleman. “Someone you think is supposed to protect you and she is violated. She was traumatized.”
Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby declined an interview request to discuss the school-wide drug search he ordered in April. A call to his attorney wasn’t immediately returned.
On the day of the search, the sheriff and his deputies locked the high school down for more than four hours and conducted body searches of close to 800 students present in school that day, officials said.
The episode is under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights outlines details of the search.
“This was a monumental lapse in judgement,” said Sarah Geraghty, the southern center’s managing attorney who filed the suit. “This is a case of law enforcement officers treating public school kids who did nothing wrong as if they just held up a bank.”
The lawsuit named Hobby and four of his deputies, but the plaintiffs are still trying to determine the names of other deputies who participated.
To that end, the group is seeking surveillance video from the school to help piece together the events. The students were held in their classrooms for hours with their cell phones confiscated and they were not allowed to take bathroom breaks, according to the lawsuit and interviews.
The lawsuit says female deputies manipulated students’ breasts, inserted their fingers inside girls’ bras, pulled up their bras and touched their partially exposed breasts. They also placed their hands inside the waistbands of girls’ underwear and reached up their dresses.
Male deputies searched boys and groped their genitals and touched their buttocks through their pants, the lawsuit says. The mass searches were conducted in front of other students and the deputies had no warrant or authority to perform the search, the lawsuit says.
The unlawful search injured the students by “causing them fear, embarrassment, stress and humiliation,” the lawsuit alleges.
One of the guiding questions since this episode in April is why would a sheriff go to such lengths to search for drugs?
Sheriff Hobby has yet to provide a clear explanation of why his deputy’s conducted such a widespread, invasive search. He defended the search to reporters in southwest Georgia and said it was legal.
The sheriff had a target list of 13 students that he suspected of possessing drugs, the lawsuit said. But only three students on that list were at school that day, according to the suit.
No drugs or drug paraphernalia were found in the search, the suit said.
Worth County school board attorney Tommy Coleman said school administrators knew the search was going to happen that day, but had no idea how far the sheriff would go.
The administrators assumed it would be conducted like other drug searches with dogs sniffing lockers and hallways, Coleman said. If anything was found, perhaps, then a student would be searched.
Coleman, who is unrelated to Amaryllis Coleman, said school officials are horrified by what happened. He said he’s spoken to the county attorney to try to draw up protocols for future searches, but the school system can’t prevent the sheriff from entering a school.
“You know how sheriffs are in Georgia — they have immense authority,” Coleman said. “Their only check is the voters and the courts.”