In mid-January, staff at a Wisconsin high school conducted invasive searches of six female students, ordering them to strip down to their underwear. The searches were done because the administration suspected the students of concealing nicotine vaping devices.
The Green Bay Press Gazette, which has been extensively covering the story, reported that two women—Superintendent Kelly Casper and the nurse at Suring Public High School, in a rural town in Oconto County—instructed the girls to undress.
One of the students stated that she “was asked to pull her bra band away from her body, but her breasts were not exposed to Ms. Casper or the nurse,” according to District Attorney Edward D. Burke Jr. (Burke’s office said that this testimony contradicted others.) Burke also noted that two of the students searched said that they were not wearing any underwear, but were permitted to keep on their leggings.
There have been reports that two men, the school principal and a police officer, separately searched male students as well, but the exact number of students involved remains unknown. The sheriff’s report, which would shed light on these details, has yet to be made public.
Confusing developments have now emerged. On February 18, the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office said that Burke had reopened the case—a claim the district attorney soon denied.
Jeff Olson, a Wisconsin-based civil rights attorney hired by the parents of some of the children, told Filter that the district attorney did meet with the affected families on February 22 but “did not give any indication that he would criminally charge” anybody.
Burke had originally declined to pursue criminal charges, as his office indicated that the actions of the school staff did not legally meet the definition of a “strip search” because the students’ private parts had not been exposed.
“I think the charging decision as far as what I had was pretty spot on because it didn’t fit the statutory criteria of strip search,” Burke said. “You can call it a strip search just based upon the facts. Common sense would say that, but the law and common sense are sometimes very far apart.”
The Oconto County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment by publication time.
Teen vaping rates in the United States have declined sharply in recent years.
Earlier in February, enraged parents had attended a Suring Public School Board meeting, where many indicated that the searches violated school district policy against strip searching. Olson’s clients are alleging that the students had their Fourth Amendment rights violated, which protects American citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.
As Jim McDonald wrote at Vaping360, school officials and law enforcement “have treated student vaping as a major health and safety threat” in general since 2018, when public health officials declared youth vaping an “epidemic.”
Subsequently, they have adopted extreme measures: The most prominent example, perhaps, occurred last summer, after police violently restrained teenagers for vaping on a Maryland boardwalk, where it wasn’t allowed. And high school nicotine testing regimens—with penalties from exclusion from extracurricular activities to expulsion—have in many places recreated the punitive approach of the drug war.
Teen vaping rates in the United States have declined sharply in recent years. And general restrictions on access to vaping products seem in some cases to have led more teenagers to smoke.
“It’s hard to know where to start with this creepy act of abuse,” Clive Bates, a tobacco control expert and the former director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK), told Filter of the Wisconsin incidents. “Is it the violation of the intimate privacy of these young women? Is it the extraordinary belief that these officers were entitled to take such invasive measures? Or is it the fact that they treated something relatively innocuous, like carrying a vaping product, as if they were concealing guns or knives?”
“This appalling incident is a malign byproduct of a moral panic about vaping engineered by federal agencies, philanthropists and fanatical activists,” he continued. “They really need to calm this down and even recognize that for some young people vaping is a good thing, if it means they’re not smoking. It’s all gone way too far.”
Photograph by Bill McChesney via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0