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Parents of strip-searched boy sue North Carolina school district

A 10-year-old North Carolina boy whose parents say he was traumatized when strip-searched by an assistant principal have sued district officials, alleging a violation of the boy's constitutional protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

In an 11-page complaint, Clarinda and Lionel Shawn Cox allege their son, Justin, was searched for a missing $20 bill by former Union Elementary School Assistant Principal Teresa Holmes in June. A fifth-grader at the time, Justin was taken aside by Holmes — who has since reportedly retired — to be searched after a female classmate dropped coins on a cafeteria floor and he retrieved them, according to the lawsuit.

“[Holmes] ordered J.C. to remove his shoes, socks, pants, and shirt,” the complaint reads. “When J.C. was stripped down to his undershorts and undershirt, [Holmes] put her fingers inside the waistband of J.C.’s undershorts and ran her fingers around the waistband. [Holmes] also lifted J.C.’s undershirt and searched his bare torso.”

“I’d say shocking is the word."

- John Whitehead, Rutherford Institute

Holmes ultimately did not find the missing $20 bill, which was later found on the cafeteria floor by another teacher. Clarinda Cox later returned home that day to find Justin waiting outside for her, which “was unusual,” according to the lawsuit.

“She made me take my clothes off,” the boy responded when Cox asked why he wasn’t waiting inside their Sampson County home.

The case is a clear-cut violation of the boy’s Fourth Amendment rights, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization. He pointed to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case —Safford Unified School District v. Redding — which held that school officials did not have the authority to strip-search 13-year-old Savana Redding without evidence that the contraband allegedly in the honor student’s possession posed a danger.

“School officials often don’t know the law,” Whitehead told FoxNews.com. “The average school teacher or principal has a huge question mark when it comes to this. And there’s sort of this mentality that all kids are dangerous today, that they need to be watched carefully. What you’re talking about here was a $20 bill, not a gun or a knife.”

The unreasonable search and seizure has “traumatized” the boy, Whitehead said.

“The boy was traumatized and his parents were traumatized,” he said. “There is direct Supreme Court precedent and they violated it.”

Clarinda and Lionel Cox could not be reached for comment. Their attorney, Deborah Meyer, declined comment when reached by FoxNews.com.

Susan Warren, a spokeswoman for Sampson County Schools, referred all inquiries to attorney Benjamin Wright, who did not return messages seeking comment.

Warren, according to the lawsuit, initially told Clarinda Cox that school personnel had the authority to search students and that Holmes was within her rights in doing so. Cox then visited Union Elementary School and met with Principal Linda Jewell-Carr, who was unaware of the incident.

Holmes and a custodian who was first asked to perform the strip search then met with Jewell-Carr and Cox. Holmes again stated she was within her legal rights to conduct the search, the lawsuit reads.

Holmes no longer works at the school and retired in June, the Fayetteville Observer reports.

“I’d say shocking is the word,” Whitehead said regarding Holmes’ apparent ignorance of the law. “If someone said he’s got a knife, yeah, sure, that’s something serious. But the overreaction here is surprising and shocking. Part of this is ignorance of the law. The other part is, what’s the mentality here?”

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