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Students subjected to invasive drug search to share $3 million settlement

ATLANTA — A southwest Georgia sheriff’s order to conduct an invasive drug search of hundreds of students at Worth County High School will cost $3 million under a proposed settlement announced Tuesday in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The settlement will go to approximately 850 students who were at the school on April 14 and subjected to the search ordered by Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby. The sheriff ordered his deputies to lock down the school as they subjected the entire student body to drug searches.

The boys and girls were ordered to leave their classrooms and line up with their hands against the wall and legs spread. Deputies searched their clothing and bodies, and some students said they felt sexually violated by officers. No drugs were found, and the case drew national headlines because of the bizarre nature of the search.

“We hope that this multimillion (dollar) settlement will send the message to law enforcement officials everywhere that abuse of power will not be tolerated,” said Mark Begnaud, an Atlanta civil rights attorney who represented the students alongside the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The $3 million settlement is pending approval in federal court, and will be paid out from a coverage agreement the county has with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

The amount represents a staggering figure for a small county of 20,700 residents. It’s more than twice the annual budget of the county’s sheriff’s department, which was $1.4 million in 2016, according to figures reported by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. The county’s annual budget is a little over $10 million.

The settlement is the maximum amount covered by the insurance policy for the sheriff’s department and will payout between $1,000 and $6,000 per student. Students who were subjected to more invasive searches will get higher payouts. Any leftover settlement money, after 15 percent attorney fees, will go into a fund to help local high school students.

“This situation has never been about compensation,” said Amaryllis Coleman, whose daughter was one of the students who said she felt sexually violated by the deputies. “It has always been about our daughter and her civil rights being violated. My husband and I see firsthand how that search has traumatized our daughter psychologically and medically.”

The settlement is the latest twist in a case that stunned the small community east of Albany when it learned that hundreds of teenagers were not allowed to contact their parents during the four-hour ordeal. The incident was captured by high-resolution school surveillance video.

Female students said deputies inserted their fingers inside their bras, touching them and exposing parts of their breasts in front of other students. Other girls said deputies touched their underwear and genital area, placing their hands inside the waistband of their underwear or up their dresses. Male students accused deputies of touching their genital areas.

The nature of the search has drawn widespread condemnation for being a gross violation of the students’ constitutional rights. Deputies found no drugs inside the school.

“The students’ voices have been heard,” said Crystal Redd, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “They took steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed.”

If a federal judge approves the settlement, the sheriff’s legal troubles do not go away. He and two of his deputies face criminal charges after a Worth grand jury indicted them last month. No trial date has been set, but the sheriff faces potential prison time if convicted of violation of oath of office, false imprisonment — both felonies — as well as sexual battery, a misdemeanor.

Gov. Nathan Deal suspended the sheriff Monday pending the outcome of the criminal case.

Hobby’s criminal defense attorney, Norman Crowe Jr., did not return phone messages before deadline. He has previously said Hobby violated no laws and would be cleared at trial.

Hobby has said little publicly about the search since it became controversial.

Just days after the search, the sheriff defended his actions and told Albany television station WALB-TV he was looking for drugs because he suspected they were present. A search by the Sylvester Police Department just weeks earlier failed to turn up drugs, but the sheriff said it wasn’t thorough enough.

Hobby initially entered the school with a target list of 13 students, but the search quickly evolved into a schoolwide lock-down. Nine students subjected to the search filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in June, with the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights and attorney Begnaud’s Atlanta law firm.

District Attorney Paul Bowden, whose circuit includes Worth County, sent a letter to Deal after Hobby’s indictment outlining the case. It said Hobby failed to halt the intrusive body searches of hundreds of high schools students even after one deputy expressed concerns about the search methods, according to Bowden’s letter.

Hobby admitted to investigators that one of his female deputies expressed concern about another deputy’s search tactics, but the sheriff left it to her to address with her colleague, the letter said. The sheriff told investigators he witnessed the same deputy conducting a search in a manner that he claims he did not direct, but the sheriff did nothing to stop it.

The sheriff “by his own admission failed to take any action to address this issue,” according to the letter.

From the beginning, speculation has spread across Worth County that the strange search — one of the starkest cases of law enforcement overreach in recent Georgia history — had some thing to do with Hobby’s son, Zachary Lewis Hobby. His arrest last month on an unrelated drug charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute renewed that speculation.

Zachary, 17, had been a student at Worth County High School for part of last year, but was not enrolled at the school at the time of the April search.

Information from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution