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Oconto County D.A.: No charges after allegations of strip searches of students at Suring School

Posted at 3:07 PM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 17:17:58-05

SURING (NBC 26) — The Oconto County District Attorney will not be filing charges in an incident involving the searching of students at Suring High School.

Oconto County District Attorney, Edward D. Burke, Jr., said in a statement that he has reviewed the reports provided by the Oconto County Sheriff’s Department regarding incidents that occurred on January 17 and 18 alleging that students were stripped searched in violation of Section 948.50 of the Wisconsin Statutes.

"They were embarassed," parent Raelene Helminger said. "They were scared. They didn't know that it wasn't okay. They didn't know this shouldn't have happened."

Helminger says her daughter and a number of other high school students were strip-searched in mid-January by adults in a position of authority.

According to the district attorney, Superintendent Kelly Casper and a school nurse asked six female students to disrobe down to their undergarments while looking for vaping cartridges.

"People you can go to if a parent or somebody trusted isn't there, we say these are the people you can go to," Helminger said. "And they broke that trust and they hurt these kids and it's not okay."

We spoke with four other parents who report their children were also searched for vaping materials. The district attorney says one of the students was asked to pull her bra band away from her body, but her breasts were not exposed to Casper or the nurse.

According to the D.A., two students were allowed to leave their leggings on. Burke says Casper conducted a hands-on search on the outside of their legs.

"Some kids, they don't have a safe place to go and school is that for them," Helminger said. "And they don't have that anymore."

The D.A. says there are inconsistencies with the statements provided by the students.

We visited the school district office multiple times, but the superintendent declined to comment. We reached out to Suring's school board president Wayne Sleeter and he provided us with this statement: "The Suring School Board understands the seriousness of this situation."

Now that the investigation is complete, we have reached out to Sleeter for further comment.

On Tuesday evening, Casper sent NBC 26 the policy on searching students, which reads in part "the board recognizes that the privacy of students or his or her belongings may not be violated by unreasonable search and seizure."

"If they would've said 'hey, there's a vaping problem, we know this is happening," we could've said to our kids 'you need to quit,' Helminger said.

At a school board meeting last week, parents stated their concerns.

"They're scared to go to school," concerned Suring parent Chad Noack told NBC 26. "They're scared they're gonna have to get naked in front of other people or get stripped to their undergarments."

The D.A. says the searches that occurred are not strip searches. Burke cites Wisconsin law in defining what constitutes a strip search. He says what happened in Suring does not meet those standards. There will be no charges issued at this time.

"This is something that’s gonna follow them for the rest of their lives — with their jobs, going to church, basically anything they do — this is gonna haunt them," Noack said.

NBC 26 confirms Madison-based civil rights attorney Jeff Scott Olson is working with students on a case.

In his statement, the District Attorney provided the language of the law in the case, which is Section 948.50 Wisconsin Statues:

948.50 Strip search by school employee.

(1) The legislature intends, by enacting this section, to protect pupils from being strip searched. By limiting the coverage of this section, the legislature is not condoning the use of strip searches under other circumstances.

(2) In this section:

(a) “School" means a public school, parochial or private school, or tribal school, as defined in s. 115.001 (15m), which provides an educational program for one or more grades between kindergarten and grade 12 and which is commonly known as a kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, junior high school, senior high school, or high school.

(b) “Strip search" means a search in which a person's genitals, pubic area, buttock or anus, or a female person's breast, is uncovered and either is exposed to view or is touched by a person conducting the search.

(3) Any official, employee or agent of any school or school district who conducts a strip search of any pupil is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.

A Class B misdemeanor carries a maximum potential penalty of 90 days jail and a $1,000.00 fine, or both.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice Safe Schools Legal Resource Manual from 2020, school officials may search a student's person or personal belongings if they have a reasonable suspicion that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.