Unlawful School Suspension Draws ACLU Attention

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and its Greater Tampa Chapter filed a federal lawsuit yesterday on behalf of 8th-grader Jessica Sorensen, who was suspended from school for refusing to allow her backpack to be searched when school officials had no basis to suspect that she had anything illegal or dangerous in her backpack.

The incident occurred when a male classmate jokingly said that he was carrying a bomb on the school bus. School authorities determined that there was no bomb and that he was joking. Nevertheless, school officials attempted to search every student. Sorenson refused and was suspended for two days, tarnishing her academic record.

"School officials do not have the legal authority to search students' private belongings without some cause -- they have to have a suspicion that is reasonable," said Rebecca Steele, Director, ACLU of Florida West Central Florida Regional Office. "It was clear that Jessica and her backpack were no threat. The school had no business punishing her by suspending her from school for refusing to be subjected to an unreasonable search."

Sorenson's mother followed school procedures to appeal the suspension, and when that was denied, Sorenson decided to seek to have all records pertaining to the suspension removed through today's legal action. The lawsuit alleges that Sumter Middle School principal Katherine Dustin and the Sumter County School District violated 8th grader Jessica Sorensen's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and that Sorenson was punished for asserting her constitutional rights.

"Just because students are in a school setting, it doesn't mean they enter a constitution-free zone. We're proud of Jessica for standing up for her rights," said Darlene Williams, President of the ACLU of Florida's Greater Tampa Chapter.

Koontz and Sorenson v. School Board of Sumter County was filed in U.S. District Court on April 6, 2009 to clear Jessica's record and recover nominal damages. Representing Sorenson are George Bedell, ACLU cooperating attorney, and ACLU attorney Rebecca Steele.

Download a PDF copy of the complaint.