Middle school students stripped search on jail tour

The Associated Press
Friday May 25, 2001

WASHINGTON — As many as nine middle school students were strip-searched at a city jail during a visit arranged by a teacher and a school aide as a warning to misbehaving children, school officials said Thursday. 

The teacher, aide and three jail employees were placed on paid leave during investigations by the school district, city corrections officials and the FBI. None of the employees was identified. 

The pupils were visiting the jail as part of an in-school suspension because of misconduct. A school official said it wasn’t immediately clear if their behavior at the jail prompted teachers to request the search. 

“There’s nothing a child could do that could warrant that response – nothing,” said Steven Seleznow, who is leading the investigation for the school district. 

Joseph Bennett, 14, one of the boys from Evans who took the tour, said the students were taken to a processing area where guards told him and four others to go to another room and strip. 

“The officers said, ‘We’re going to make you take your clothes off like real prisoners,”’ Joseph, a seventh-grader, told The Washington Post. 

He said he removed his two T-shirts, jeans and shoes in front of his schoolmates, at least three corrections officers and one of the teachers. He said an officer removed the rest of his clothes. 

D.C. Superintendent Paul Vance said he was “horrified by the chain of events” surrounding the searches. “It nullifies, in effect, all of the great things I’ve been seeing in the school system over the past three years,” he said. 

Both Vance and Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington said they would support prosecution of the employees if investigations show they committed crimes. 

The jail workers showed “extremely poor judgment, perhaps an abuse of their authority,” in conducting the searches, he said. 

It was unclear whether the students were touched by guards or were stripped naked, Washington said.  

While Seleznow said nine of the 12 students may have been strip-searched, Washington said a preliminary investigation at the jail showed that only three students were told to remove their street clothes and don standard-issue jail jumpsuits. 

Washington said the students were not subjected to cavity searches, customary for prisoners being processed. 

Washington said school groups and professional organizations have toured the jail at a rate of three times per week since 1989. He said the program has been suspended.