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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Big Island principal sued over alleged strip search

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i filed suit in federal court yesterday alleging a Big Island principal ordered a female student strip-searched.

The suit alleges that Steven Hirakami, principal of Hawai'i Academy of Arts & Sciences in Pahoa, had a 15-year-old girl "strip completely naked" during a police investigation into the theft of $30, said Brent White, legal director for the civil liberties union. The search, which was conducted by a female administrator, took place Jan. 30 at the school, according to the suit.

No money was ever found and the girl was cleared of any wrongdoing.

The suit claims the search violated the girl's right to be free from unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and her right to privacy under the state constitution.

Two other students — a boy and a girl — were also suspects in the investigation. The other girl was also strip-searched by the same administrator, but not the boy, White said. Neither of those two students is a party in the lawsuit.

Hirakami yesterday called the allegations "totally ridiculous" and "bizarre."

"There was no strip search conducted in this case," Hirakami said. "That is totally false. She was wearing loose clothing. She was told to shake free whatever could have been concealed."

He said the school took actions within its legal rights to maintain a safe environment at the campus.

Hirakami said the parents of both girls gave their permission for the searches.

"We have more common sense than to strip a child completely naked," he said.

Under state administrative rules, the Department of Education forbids strip searches, but because the academy is a charter school, the courts may have to decide if the school has more latitude when it comes to interpreting them, said spokesman Greg Knudsen.

"The question isn't whether or not strip searches are allowed in schools, but whether a strip search occurred," he said. "That's a matter for the courts."

White said he was surprised at Hirakami's denial. "I have no reason to believe it didn't happen," he said of the search.

He said the school never notified the girl's parents of the search.

White said the girl transferred to a school on O'ahu. In the lawsuit, he alleges that the student "suffered mental anguish, emotional distress, anxiety, embarrassment and anger" because of the alleged incident.

The suit seeks unspecified damages to be decided by a jury.

"A student's right to privacy was grossly violated by the school administration," White said. "It is difficult to understand how the principal allowed this humiliating and demeaning treatment to occur."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.