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Bipartisan legislation that would expand definition of illegal strip search in schools gets public hearing

Bill is in response to an incident at a northeast Wisconsin school where a former administrator forced 6 teenage girls to strip down to their underwear

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

Wisconsin lawmakers are working to advance a bill that would expand the definition of an illegal strip search of a student.

The legislation is in response to an incident in January 2022 at a northeast Wisconsin school in Oconto County.

Former Suring Public Schools superintendent Kelly Casper confined six students to a restroom off the school nurse’s office to be searched for nicotine vapes, according to the district attorney’s office.

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The families hired a civil rights attorney who filed a notice of claim with the school, but as of March, a lawsuit was not filed.

Charges of false imprisonment were filed in March 2022. A press release from the Oconto County 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.

Under current law, it’s a Class B misdemeanor for a school employee to strip search a student, but the definition of that search is limited to exposing or touching private areas including genitals, buttocks or breasts. This bill would expand that to include a search of a person still wearing undergarments.

State Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, is an author of the bill. At a public hearing of the state Assembly Committee on Education Thursday, he said the legislation would protect children in the future.

He praised the Surling School District’s response to the incident but said the state has hundreds of other districts.

“I think for the benefit of those six young ladies, who have yet to have some form of justice, can we at least adjust the law to protect others?” he said.

Casper was not fired, but Steffen said she “came to a settlement agreement with the school district, essentially, a golden parachute to go away, so no criminal impact.”

State Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, also spoke in favor of the bill Thursday.

“Technically speaking, there was no strip search conducted,” he said. “This is an effort to incorporate what happened there into the definition of strip search, so it can’t be done.”

The bill has received support from Democrats and the state Department of Public Instruction. It could be voted on by the education committee this summer.

The committee also heard testimony on other bills Thursday. One would supply schools with anti-choking devices, another would define critical mapping data for school safety plans and another would issue a declaration of equivalency of high school graduation or a general educational development certificate.