Just a day after Gov. Nathan Deal suspended a South Georgia sheriff who last spring ordered physical searches of a county high school’s entire student body, lawyers representing Worth High School students in a federal class action announced a $3 million settlement of claims stemming from the warrantless search.
The proposed settlement of the case, filed in June in the Middle District of Georgia, will resolve civil rights claims against Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby and multiple county deputies stemming from the sheriff’s mass search last April of approximately 850 students at Worth County High School, according to attorneys at Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights. The sheriff orchestrated searches of the entire student body during a four-hour lockdown of the high school.
The students, ages 15-18, were forced to submit to intimate and invasive body searches by local deputies, according to court papers and lawyers representing nine students who became plaintiffs in the case. No illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia were found.
Thomasville attorney Raleigh Rollins, who defended Hobby in the civil litigation, could not immediately be reached for comment.
According to the complaint, classes were suspended, students were forced to line up in the hallway or corralled in the gymnasium while they waited to be physically searched. Students’ cellphones were seized without any explanation as to what was happening or why and they were barred from contacting their parents.
Deputies allegedly inserted fingers inside girls’ bras or pulled up their bras while touching and partially exposing their breasts, according to the complaint. The federal suit also contended that deputies cupped or manipulated students’ genitals through their undergarments as they reached inside waistbands or under dresses. Some deputies wore no protective gloves, and others did not change gloves when performing searches of multiple students’ genital areas, the suit contended.
The pending settlement would pay each student $1,000-$6,000, with students who were subjected to the most-invasive physical searches receiving higher amounts, according to Southern Center lawyers. An estimated 15 percent of the settlement would be set aside for legal fees. Half of any remaining funds would be paid into a fund exclusively for the benefit of Worth County High students.
“The students’ voices have been heard,” said Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Crystal Redd. “Their rights were violated on April 14, and they took the steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed.”
“This settlement is a victory for the hundreds of Worth County students whose constitutional rights were violated,” said Mark Begnaud, an attorney with Atlanta’s Horsley Begnaud who also represented students who sued. “We hope that this multimillion-dollar settlement will send the message to law enforcement officials everywhere that abuse of power will not be tolerated.”
Last month, a Worth County grand jury indicted Hobby and two deputies who participated in the mass search on charges of felony false imprisonment and violation of their oath of office, also a felony, according to the Southern Center and Deal. The charges also included misdemeanor sexual battery.
On Monday, Deal issued an executive order suspending Hobby after a review panel appointed by the governor found that the charges included in the indictment would related to and would adversely impact the sheriff’s administration of his office. The governor suspended Hobby until the criminal charges are adjudicated.