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Georgia students subjected to invasive body searches to share $3M payout

Brad Schrade, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

ATLANTA -- A southwest Georgia sheriff's order to conduct an invasive drug search of hundreds of students at Worth County High School will cost the county $3 million under a proposed settlement announced Tuesday in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The settlement will go to approximately 850 students who were at the school on April 14 and subjected to the search ordered by Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby. The sheriff ordered his deputies to lock down the school as they subjected the entire student body to drug searches. The boys and girls were ordered to leave their classrooms and line up with their hands against the wall and legs spread. Deputies searched their clothing and bodies, and some students said they felt sexually violated by officers. No drugs were found, and the case drew national headlines because of the bizarre nature of the search.

"We hope that this multimillion settlement will send the message to law enforcement officials everywhere that abuse of power will not be tolerated," said Mark Begnaud, an Atlanta civil rights attorney who represented the students alongside the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The $3 million settlement is pending approval in federal court, but represents a staggering figure for a small county of 20,700 residents. It's more than twice the annual budget of the county's sheriff's department, which was $1.4 million in 2016, according to figures reported by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA. The county's annual budget is a little over $10 million.

The settlement is the maximum amount covered by the insurance policy for the sheriff's department and will payout between $1,000 and $6,000 per student. Students who were subjected to more invasive searches will get higher payouts. Any leftover settlement money, after 15 percent attorney fees, will go into a fund to help local high schools students.

"This situation has never been about compensation," said Amaryllis Coleman, whose daughter was one of the students who said she felt sexually violated by the deputies. "It has always been about our daughter and her civil rights being violated. My husband and I see firsthand how that search has traumatized our daughter psychologically and medically."

The settlement is the latest twist in a case that stunned the small community east of Albany when it learned that hundreds of teenagers were not allowed to contact their parents during the four-hour ordeal. The incident was captured by high-resolution school surveillance video.

Female students said deputies inserted their fingers inside their bras, touching them and exposing parts of their breasts in front of other students. Other girls said deputies touched their underwear and genital area, placing their hands inside the waistband of their underwear or up their dresses. Male students accused deputies of touching their genital areas.

The nature of the search has drawn widespread condemnation for being a gross violation of the students' constitutional rights. Deputies found no drugs inside the school.

"The students' voices have been heard," said Crystal Redd, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. "They took steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed."

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