Settlement of CO Strip-Search Case Ends Practice for Federal Jobs Corps Participants Nationwide

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
March 1, 2000 12:00 am

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DENVER, CO — The successful settlement here of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought against the Department of Labor to stop strip-searches of Job Corps participants will end the practice nationwide, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said today.

The ACLU represented two Job Corps participants in Collbran who were forced to undergo a humiliating group strip search initiated by a “rumor” that one of the 30 program participants might be carrying drugs. Each participant was ordered to strip and endure an invasive, full-body search or else be “terminated on the spot.” No drugs were ever found.

The Collbran Center, operated by the U.S. Department of Labor, provides a residential education and vocational training program for disadvantaged youth.

“Today’s agreement will protect Job Corps participants in every Job Corps facility in the country,” said Susan Brienza, who served as an ACLU cooperating attorney on the case. “No young person should ever have to go through what our clients endured.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the Department of Labor will ban such group strip searches — and all other searches of the person that are not based on individualized suspicion — at Job Corps centers throughout the country. In addition, the government will provide financial compensation to the two workers who were searched.

“This is a victory for our Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting unreasonable searches,” said attorney Greg Whitehair of Kutak Rock, who led the legal team for the ACLU. “It is entirely unreasonable to search or strip search an entire group of young people simply because government officials suspect that one of them might possess marijuana.”

The ACLU sued on behalf of Alisha McKay, who was 17 years old and five months pregnant on March 30, 1997, when the search occurred. She has no criminal record and no history of involvement with illegal drugs.

According to the lawsuit, 25 to 30 young persons were forced to submit to the strip search when they returned to the Job Corps Center after spending a weekend outside the live-in facility. After the bus arrived at the Center, the suit alleges, each teenager’s backpack was searched, but no contraband was found. Federal officials then divided the males and females into separate groups and the young Job Corps participants were then ordered, two at a time, into a small bathroom, where the searches were conducted.

Once inside the girls’ bathroom, the ACLU lawsuit alleged, McKay and another young woman were ordered to stand side by side, remove their clothes, spread their legs apart, and squat as a Job Corps official inspected their genitals. McKay was told that if she did not submit to the strip search and body cavity inspection, she would be terminated from the Job Corps program “on the spot.”

“A mere rumor that some unspecified individual might have drugs does not authorize the government to conduct a blanket strip search of an entire busload of passengers,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “It certainly cannot justify subjecting two dozen teenagers to this senseless, degrading ordeal.”

According to Silverstein, the ACLU became involved in the case a few days after the search took place, when the organization received a handwritten letter from a 17 year-old victim and her mother.

“They said that they believed the strip search was wrong,” he said, “and they hoped they could do something to make sure that this would never happen again to another Job Corps participant. With this agreement, they have made that hope a reality.”

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