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Bipartisan bill would expand definition of illegal student strip search

Legislation comes after six Suring teens were forced to strip to their underwear as administrator searched for vape cartridges

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Blue lockers line a hallway in a school building.
A student walks down a hallway with lockers Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at Hackett Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers want to expand the definition of illegal strip searches of students. The proposed change in legislation comes a year after a Suring High School administrator forced six girls to strip down to their underwear during a search for vaping cartridges.

It’s already illegal for school employees to strip search a pupil, but current law defines such a search as exposing or touching genitals, buttocks or breasts. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Wisconsin Assembly Tuesday seeks to change the definition to include searches in which students are still wearing undergarments.

The bill is directly tied to a controversial search of six teenage girls at Suring High School conducted by former Suring Public Schools Administrator Kelly Casper in February 2022. The girls’ families were outraged to learn Casper made them strip to their underwear while searching for nicotine vapes.

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The families hired a civil rights attorney who filed a notice of claim with the school, but a lawsuit hasn’t been filed according to online state and federal court databases.

At the time, the Oconto County District Attorney said Casper wouldn’t be charged for making the girls remove their clothes because the search didn’t meet the state’s definition of an illegal strip search.

Charges of false imprisonment were filed in March 2022. A press release from the district attorney’s office said Casper lacked legal authority to confine the girls in the bathroom without their consent during the search. Those charges were dismissed by a circuit court judge in June 2022. Casper resigned later that month.

State Rep. David Steffen, R-Green bay, told WPR he worked with the girls’ families, local law enforcement and Suring schools on his bill to expand the definition of illegal student strip searches.

“So, we’re going to make sure we change that because there’s no circumstance in which our children should be at school and a school official can legally have the authority to strip them down to their underwear,” Steffen said.

Steffen’s bill has garnered Democratic cosponsors, including State Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison. She said students deserve to feel safe at school and that means no employees or administrators should be strip searching them.

“I think it’s important when we’re making law to not necessarily be reactive to any particular situation,” Roys said. “But, yes, I think that when a student’s privacy and their bodily autonomy is violated in such an extreme way, there needs to be a legal consequence for that.”

Steffen said his bill should get a public hearing in the coming weeks. He said with bipartisan support in hand, he hopes to see it signed into law before the start of the next school year.

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