Around 900 students from Worth County High School were subjected to "unlawful and intrusive" searches – all of which turned up empty. Nine teenagers brought the class action suit against Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby, who has now been suspended, alongside 17 of his deputies.
The school was placed on lockdown for four hours on Friday 14 April this year when about 40 uniformed officers from five law enforcement agencies arrived on site. Students were told to remain in specific areas and their phones were seized, meaning they could not contact parents, according to the suit led by attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and civil rights law firm Horsley Begnaud.
The searches began at 8am and nearly every student was subjected to a hands-on body search, while officers and police dogs also plied through cars, lockers, classrooms and bags.
According to the suit, deputies inserted fingers inside girls' bras and pulled them bras up, partially exposing their bare breasts, touched girls' vaginal areas through their underwear, and cupped or groped boys' genitals – all in full view of other students.
The nine plaintiffs said the searches caused them "fear, embarrassment, stress, and humiliation".
Sheriff Hobby reportedly had a list of 13 students in a "target list" he suspected of possessing drugs, but only three were in school that day and officers had no reason to suspect any other student of unlawful activity. Hobby had no warrant for the search.
A judge has now ruled that law enforcement violated the students' civil rights by conducting the searches without probable cause, and ordered the huge $3m settlement to be paid. According to WALB, the settlement will now go to US District Judge Leslie Abrams for approval. The funds will reportedly come from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia rather than the taxpayer.
"This settlement is a victory for the hundreds of Worth County students whose constitutional rights were violated," said Mark Begnaud, an attorney with Horsley Begnaud. "We hope that this multimillion-dollar settlement will send the message to law enforcement officials everywhere that abuse of power will not be tolerated."
SCHR lawyers said each student could receive $1 to $6,000 depending on the invasiveness of their search, with some of the funds covering legal expenses and the rest set aside in a fund for the school.
Crystal Redd, an attorney for SCHR, said the students' voices had been heard. "Their rights were violated on April 14, and they took the steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed."
Just a day before the settlement was announced, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order suspending Sheriff Hobby. Last month, a grand jury indicted Hobby on charges of felony false imprisonment, violation of his oath of office and sexual battery. His lawyer has previously said that his position is he did nothing criminal. Two deputies were also indicted in relation to the mass search.