Hundreds of Georgia high school students were the subject of a humiliating pat-down that allowed local sheriff's deputies to intrusively touch their bodies during a fruitless search for drugs, according to a federal lawsuit.
The warrantless search occurred in April, the suit says, when Worth County Sheriff's deputies conducted a massive spot check of about 900 students at Worth County High School for illegal drugs. Police dogs were also deployed to search bags, classrooms, lockers and cars.
"Defendants' searches of students were intrusive, performed in an aggressive manner, and done in full view of other students," according to the suit filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
In the end, deputies found no drugs or drug paraphernalia, according to the suit.
Student cellphones were seized amid the search, so personal video footage from that day doesn't appear to have been shared on social media, said Sarah Geraghty, the managing attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of nine families.
The school, however, is in possession of surveillance video, which the plaintiffs plan to ask a court to have turned over as evidence in the case, Geraghty said Friday.
"We believe the video shows both the identities of those doing the searches and the level of intrusiveness of the searches," she added.
Geraghty contends that law enforcement needed to have "specific justifications" for searching that many students in such a wide scope.
According to the suit, Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby had a target list of 13 students that he suspected of possessing drugs — but only three of them ended up being on campus that day.
Days after the search, which received backlash from the community, Hobby defended the events to NBC affiliate WALB, saying that as long as a school administrator was present, such a search was legal.
Interim Worth County Superintendent Lawrence Walters told WALB that Hobby never asked for permission when he informed the district in March that he was planning a search after spring break. Police believed that they were drugs at the school after an investigation involving several juveniles linked to a series of burglaries.
But Walters said that "under no circumstances did we approve touching any students." He could not be reached for further comment Friday.
The suit claims that the school was placed on lockdown for about four hours while deputies forced the students to stand spread-eagle and be examined in hallways or the gym. Deputies allegedly "touched and manipulated students' breasts and genitals" and "inserted fingers inside girls' bras," also exposing their body parts.
They are also accused of touching the girls' "vaginal areas through their underwear," while they "cupped or groped boys' genitals."
The students felt "fear, embarrassment, stress and humiliation," according to the suit, which is seeking class-action status and a jury trial to decide damages.
Hobby's attorney, Raleigh Rollins Jr., did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.