Parents of high school students in a small Wisconsin town are demanding action from their school board against the administrators who conducted intrusive searches of several students suspected of vaping. At least one family has hired an attorney.
The searches occurred January 17 and 18, after some students were caught vaping at Suring High School. School administrators, along with police, ordered several students to remove their clothes and submit to searches for vaping devices. Boys and girls were searched separately by adults of the same sex. Parents were not notified by the school until after the searches were done.
Suring School District Superintendent Kelly Casper participated in the searches of the girls, along with a school nurse and female law enforcement officer. Boys were searched by a male school principal and a male police officer. At least six girls were searched, but the total number of students involved is unknown.
Suring is a village of fewer than 1,000 residents, about 50 miles northwest of Green Bay, in Oconto County. Suring High School has about 120 students, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette.
More than a dozen parents vented their concerns about the body searches at a Feb. 9 Suring Public School Board meeting, according to TCH Daily News, which first reported the story. The searches, parents said, were done without their knowledge or consent, and violated the school district’s own policies.
Parents who spoke at the meeting seemed far less concerned about their children possibly vaping than they were with the school’s abuse of students’ civil liberties and the lack of communication from the school with parents.
“Things do need to change and you need to decide what action needs to take place,” one parent told the school board. “Sometimes this is the only safe place they have and it has been taken from them.”
“She was taken into a room and gave them her vape and the superintendent told her that she was going to strip search her anyway,” one girl’s parent told TCH Daily News after the board meeting. “She stripped her down to her bra and underwear and [the administrators] had her pull her bra out and looked down there to make sure there was nothing there.”
“I was informed hours later that it was done and that she would receive an in-school suspension,” the parent added.
The school district’s policy states, “Under no circumstance shall a school official ever conduct a strip search of a student.” Parents of the Suring students are questioning why school staff members that participated in the searches are not being punished for violating the policy. The school board says it is investigating the incidents.
“These are your policies,” one parent told the school board. “I really hope you guys open your eyes because we are not going away and we are going to make sure that something is done.”
“If this was any other business, this would not be tolerated,” another parent said. “The person who did it would be on suspension during the investigation, so why is that not being done?”
School board President Wayne Sleeter later issued a statement saying, “The Suring School Board understands the seriousness of this situation. The school board is monitoring the situation closely and we will have a statement once the investigation is complete.”
The Oconto County Sheriff’s Department investigated some of the incidents, and turned the information over to the Oconto County District Attorney’s Office. But county District Attorney Edward Burke said no charges will be brought against school personnel because the searches didn’t fall under the state’s legal definition of strip searches.
Wisconsin Statutes Section 948.50 defines “strip search” as “a search in which a person’s genitals, pubic area, buttock or anus, or a female person’s breast, is uncovered and either is exposed to view or is touched by a person conducting the search.”
But a Madison, Wisconsin civil rights lawyer who is representing at least one of the students disagrees. “I am confident that we will be able to show that these searches violated the fourth amendment,” attorney Jeff Scott Olson told Green Bay TV station WBAY. “And I think we have an excellent damages case here.”
“They’re scared to go to school,” Suring parent Chad Noack told Green Bay TV station WGBA. “They’re scared they’re gonna have to get naked in front of other people or get stripped to their undergarments. This is something that’s gonna follow them for the rest of their lives—with their jobs, going to church, basically anything they do—this is gonna haunt them.”
Since 2018, when public health officials declared a teenage vaping “epidemic,” school officials and law enforcement have treated student vaping as a major health and safety threat. Many schools have adopted extreme responses to evidence of student vaping, including removing bathroom doors, conducting random searches, administering urine tests, and punishing students with months-long suspensions.
Last November in Montreal, four students were physically searched by school officials in an incident similar to the one in Wisconsin. Last summer, a group of teenagers on the Ocean City, Maryland boardwalk were violently restrained and then arrested after refusing a police order to stop vaping.
As long as the hypothetical risks and health consequences of vaping continue to be exaggerated by groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Truth Initiative, drug war-style enforcement incidents like the Suring searches will continue to happen, and will probably increase.
Smokers created vaping without any help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and vapers have the right to keep innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I recently joined the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy