W A S H I N G T O N, D. C., May 30, 2001 -- The District of Columbia is facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and four jail officials have been fired after groups of boys and girls were allegedly strip-searched and traumatized in jail visits, officials said.
The middle-school children visited the District of Columbia jail earlier this month as part of a program to scare troublesome students out of bad behavior.
Strip-Searched, Harassed at the D.C. Jail
School district officials are investigating numerous complaints, including allegations that 18 girls from the district's Evans Middle School were led into a block of male inmates and harassed on May 18.
One day earlier, officials say up to nine boys from a group of male students were allegedly strip-searched during a similar tour. Officials are also investigating whether male and female students were strip-searched during two visits in April.
Wayne Cohen, a lawyer representing some of the students in a multi-million dollar lawsuit stemming from the incident, said some of the students also witnessed an inmate masturbating.
Outraged parents said the school should have canceled the girls' tour after hearing complaints from the boys the day before.
Warden Patricia Britton, a 19-year veteran of the corrections department, was fired on Tuesday for allegedly allowing the searches.
Correction officers Dexter Allen, Jerome West and Karl White — all of whom have served at least 13 years with the department — were also fired for their alleged roles. In addition, at least one school official has been placed on administrative leave.
Corrections Department, School Officials Investigate
Corrections Department Chief Odie Washington released a statement saying the four displayed "extremely poor judgment, abuse of authority, and a clear violation of department policy."
A teacher and a school official responsible for coordinating the jail visits have been placed on administrative leave, said the city's schools superintendent, Paul Vance.
Saying he was "horrified by the chain of events regarding the students," Vance also ordered the jail trips suspended and launched an internal investigation into the matter.
Source: Warden Knew — and Did Nothing
The boys who were searched had received in-school suspensions because of misconduct. The jail has hosted three groups of students each week to deter them from committing crimes, according to jail officials.
The decision to order the students to disrobe apparently was made by jail employees and the teachers, officials said. They said the students may have been stripped within view of inmates.
A corrections officer at the D.C. jail told local ABCNEWS affiliate WJLA that warden Britton was aware that the middle school students were being strip-searched.
"There was an officer, who was assigned there during this incident, who objected and opposed to the strip searches," the officer said.
That officer went up to the warden with the objection. The warden was notified, "but they were still allowed to do the strip searches," the officer added.
In his statement, Washington said Britton failed to follow up on the allegations after they were first reported.
Seeking $4 Million Per Student
Cohen, who is representing six girls from the May 18 incident and a boy from Ballou Senior High School who toured the jail on April 12, said his clients are seeking $4 million each.
"Our goal is to file a lawsuit to find some answers quickly," Cohen said. "My clients are very interested in getting answers out."
Parent Constance Redd said the incident has made her daughter an object of ridicule at school.
"She does not want to go to school because children can be cruel sometimes and they make fun of things like that," she said, but declined to discuss details of the incident.
Meanwhile, the department says middle school students will no longer take part in jail visits — but the program continues for high school and college students.
The FBI is also investigating the incidents.
Earlier this year, New York City settled a class-action lawsuit brought about by people strip-searched for minor infractions such as loitering. As many as 50,000 people are in line to get amounts ranging from $250 to $22,500. ABCNEWS affiliate WJLA in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.