Dist. 116, Round Lake Heights police: Strip-search claim unfounded

Parents told search followed policy; Round Lake Hts. police say teen changed story

Updated 10/7/2012 3:03 PM

School officials in Round Lake flatly denied Friday that administrators at Round Lake Middle School strip-searched a 13-year-old last April.

As well, Round Lake Heights police said Friday they investigated and deemed unfounded the family's claim that their teenager was strip-searched after administrators were given a tip that the boy was carrying marijuana.

A Round Lake Heights woman has sued Round Lake Area District 116 for $1.2 million, claiming her son was forced to remove his clothing and pull down his underwear by administrators who were checking him for illegal drugs.

The suit says none were found and that the boy was humiliated and distressed by the intrusion.

On Friday, a message to parents from Superintendent Constance R. Collins said the district is aware of the lawsuit and that it "absolutely denies" the claim.

The message says both the school district and the Round Lake Heights Police Department investigated the accusation at the time it was raised and concluded "nothing resembling a strip search" occurred.

According to police reports, the father of the teen took his son to the police station on Sunday, April 22, after the son told him he was strip-searched April 20.

Round Lake Heights Police Chief John Roehlk said the investigation was handed off to a school resource officer when the school reopened Monday morning.

Police said their investigation revealed that on April 20 Assistant Principal Ray Porten took the teen into a conference room where former Round Lake Middle School Principal Ryan Hawkins was waiting.

According to police, the administrators had the boy take off his shoes, turn his pockets inside out, and shake the waist band of his pants to dislodge anything potentially hidden.

The district's policy on searches was satisfied in this case, parents were told. The message was summarized in auto calls to parents Thursday night and posted to the district's website on Friday.

The lawsuit filed in federal court says something entirely different occurred, however. It claims the search of the boy was "excessively intrusive in light of his age and the nature of the suspected infraction."

According to the suit, the 13-year-old was instructed to pull down his pants and underwear and to lift up his genitals to allow visual inspection. The suit claimed the student was forced to bare his chest, torso and groin in violation of the prohibition against unreasonable searches -- all in a conference room where anyone looking in could have seen.

District 116, Hawkins and Porten are named as defendants.

Attorney Elizabeth Vitell, of the law firm Phillip L. Coffey LLC, which is representing the 13-year-old, declined to comment Friday on the school district's denial.

"We have nothing further to add at this point," she said Friday. "We'll see them in court."

Police, meanwhile, say they ruled the allegations unfounded after talking with the District 116 administrators, after speaking with the teen and attempting to talk again with the boy's family.

Police also said the teen gave three different answers when asked how far he was allegedly told to pull his pants down.

Roehlk said officers tried on three separate occasions to meet with the teen's family to discuss the case, but the family never came in.

"We closed (the case) without charges when the family did not show up to the interviews," he said.

The Daily Herald knows the name of the mother but is not naming her in this story to protect the identity of her son.

School authorities are authorized to conduct "reasonable searches" of equipment and property owned or controlled by the school, such as lockers, desks and parking lots, as well as personal effects left there by a student "without notice to or the consent of the student," according to District 116 policy.

Authorities may also search a student or the student's personal effects when there is a "reasonable ground" for suspecting the search will turn up evidence the student has violated the law or the district's conduct rules.

Those searches should not be "excessively intrusive" according to district policy and the term strip search is not mentioned.

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