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Damages Awarded to Two New Mexico Jr. High Students After Excessive Strip Search

New Mexico Jr. High students Crystal Kennedy and Randy Ford challenged the appellate reversal of damages they were awarded in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against Dexter Consolidated Schools (DCS) and individual school officials. The action was filed following a strip search by DCS officials who were looking for another student's missing diamond ring. The damages were reinstated except for attorney's fees, which were remanded for determination.

Kennedy was taken to a school bathroom and instructed to leave her pants down after multiple staff members watched her urinate. While in this position she was told to lift up her shirt and pull her bra away from her body, exposing her breasts, while teachers examined her for possible possession of the ring. Ford went through a similar process; both students brought suit, where they prevailed at trial.

The trial court awarded monetary damages against the DCS and school officials, as well as punitive damages against three officials, plus attorney's fees. Kennedy and Ford each received $50,000 in compensatory damages and $175,000 in total punitive damages. The defendants appealed, and the appellate court vacated the damage awards and found two of the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

On a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court of New Mexico reversed the appellate ruling and affirmed the monetary damages against the DCS, but reversed the award of attorney's fees. The reinstatement of punitive damages as to school officials Perry and Rodriguez was due to their intentional "utter indifference" to the students' rights. It was determined that qualified immunity was inapplicable when the strip search resulted in the students' nudity, which violated clearly established law. The case was remanded for re-determination of attorney’s fees. See: Kennedy v. Dexter Consolidated Schools, 129 N.M. 436, 10 P.3d 115 (N.M., 2000).

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Related legal case

Kennedy v. Dexter Consolidated Schools