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Education Reporter

Students Strip-Searched During Visit to City Jail
Firings, lawsuits, suspensions follow
WASHINGTON, DC - At least five and as many as nine middle-school boys were strip-searched during a tour of the city jail on May 17, and a group of girls were also allegedly searched and harassed while visiting the jail on May 18. Warden Patricia Britton, a 19-year corrections department veteran, was fired May 29 for permitting the searches, along with corrections officers Jerome West, Karl White and Dexter Allen, all of whom had been employed by the department for at least 13 years. Corrections Department Director Odie Washington told the Associated Press (5-30-01) that prison officials had abused their authority and "exercised extremely poor judgment."

The students were touring the jail as part of a "scared straight" program to warn disruptive children of the consequences of bad behavior. The teacher and school official who arranged the visits have been placed on administrative leave.

The outraged families of seven students have filed multi-million dollar lawsuits against the District of Columbia, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. One 14-year old boy who was strip-searched said the guards told the students that they would be made to take their clothes off "like real prisoners." A number of the girls were reportedly exposed to a lewd sex act by a male inmate. Angry parents wondered why the school hadn't canceled the girls' tour in view of what had happened to the boys the previous day.

According to the Associated Press (5-24-01), Washington, DC school superintendent Paul Vance is "horrified at the chain of events" surrounding the strip searches. Steven Seleznow, who is heading an investigation for the school district, pointed out in response to a suggestion that the students' conduct may have prompted the searches: "There is nothing a child could do that could warrant that response - nothing."

When reports of the strip searches became public, a spokesman for the DC Department of Corrections explained to the New York Times (5-25-01) that guards regularly "pat search" jail visitors for weapons or contraband, but that strip searches "are obvious violations of the rules."

Commentaries about the incident have begun to appear. NewsMax.com columnist Joe Madison opined: "The jail hosted groups of students to deter them from committing crimes. The real crime is the lack of common sense used by the teachers and jail employees, all of whom are being investigated. If found guilty, they should be sent back to that same jail and locked up for a few weeks, after being strip-searched."

Tours of the jail by outside groups - a common practice since 1989 - have been suspended.

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