Nobody will accuse the Worth County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office of being “soft on drugs.” That office’s grasp of common sense, constitutional conduct and common decency, on the other hand, is very much open to question. Among those asking the questions — some very specific and pointed ones, every American should hope — are a Worth County grand jury and a United States district court.
As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and now picked up by media organizations nationwide, including the Washington Post, 40 uniformed officers descended on Worth County High School in Sylvester shortly after the morning bell of April 14, putting the school on lockdown for a drug sweep.
All 900 members of the student body in attendance, according to accounts from the students themselves, their parents and school administrators, were searched — ordered to hand over their cell phones, put their hands against the walls, spread their legs and take off their shoes.
For the next four hours, according to testimony collected for a grand jury indictment and a class-action suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, deputies allegedly groped high school girls’ vaginas and breasts, and boys’ groins, in an ostensible search for drugs.
There were no arrests. There were no drugs found. There was no warrant.
Sheriff Jeff Hobby did say he had a “target list” of 12 (yes, twelve) suspected (yes, suspected — a word that seems to have amassed a terrifyingly unchallengeable degree of police authority) drug users at the school … exactly three of whom were there that day.
(According to the Post, the sheriff’s office would not provide details on the basis for suspicion of drug possession at the school, either to plaintiff attorneys or to the newspaper.)
One student told the Post that a female deputy “looked down the back and front” of her dress, then “cupped [her] vaginal area and buttocks.” Body searches of some female students reportedly exposed their bare breasts to classmates. Another deputy “came up under my privates and then he grabbed my testicles twice,” a male student testified during the summer. “I wanted to turn around and tell him to stop touching me. I wanted it to be over and I just wanted to call my dad because I knew something wasn’t right.”
“Some people were crying,” one ninth-grader told the Journal-Constitution. “Kids weren't allowed to go home; they weren't allowed to tell their parents” because of the lockdown.
On Tuesday, the AJC reported, the grand jury indicted Hobby for sexual battery, false imprisonment and violation of oath of office, all felony charges. Deputy Tyler Turner was indicted on one felony count of violation of oath and a misdemeanor count of sexual battery, and Deputy Deidra Whiddon was indicted for felony violation of her oath of office.
Those are just the criminal counts. A class-action federal civil suit has been filed against the sheriff’s office on behalf of at least nine and by now probably several more Worth County students.
At the state level, the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council has suspended the certifications of the sheriff and the deputies; and Worth County District Attorney Paul Bowden told the Journal-Constitution he was preparing a letter detailing the charges against the sheriff to Gov. Nathan Deal, who has executive authority to suspend the sheriff. If any of these descriptions of what went on at that school last spring are even remotely accurate, the governor has not only the right but the moral imperative to exercise that authority.
“We did not give permission,” Interim Worth County Superintendent Lawrence Walters told Albany TV station WALB, “but they didn’t ask for permission … [the sheriff] just said that he was going to do it after spring break.”
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” school system attorney Tommy Coleman told the Post, “and I’ve never heard of anybody doing that kind of thing.”
There have been plenty of high-profile occasions, especially in recent years, when the alleged abuse of police power was a matter of opinion. This one sounds like a matter of consensus.