School 'Regrets' Strip-Search of Third Grader Accused of Stealing

Suzan Clarke
ABC News Blogs

Officials at a North Carolina elementary school have expressed regret that a 10-year-old boy was strip-searched after he was accused of stealing $20 from a classmate.

The boy, Justin Cox, did not have the money. His mother, Clarinda Cox, is outraged.

Cox told North Carolina TV station WRAL that the assistant principal at Union Elementary school, Teresa Holmes, ordered her son to remove his shoes, jeans and shirt, leaving him in his boxers and a T-shirt.

No one from the school contacted Cox about the accusations or the search. She said she found out about the incident when Justin came home and appeared upset.

"If I felt he needed to be searched, I would have brought him into the bathroom," Cox told WRAL in an interview on Monday. "You could have had a witness in the bathroom with me. I would have searched my son."

A Sampson County school district spokeswoman initially told WRAL that Cox should have been notified of the search, but maintained that Holmes was within her rights to search Justin, even though she "may have been overzealous in her actions."

But in a statement to on Wednesday, the district said it "regrets this incident occurred.

"We currently have a policy associated with student searches and unfortunately in this case our school board policy was not followed. The principal immediately apologized for both the school and for the lack of communication by the assistant principal. Since then, the principal has attempted to reach out to the mother. The student continued to come to school every day after the incident and our principal spent time with him to ensure he felt comfortable at school."

Holmes acknowledged searching the boy on June 1, but in a statement to WRAL, she said that when a $20 bill fell from a female classmate's pocket in the cafeteria, "seven or eight" students saw the Justin dive to pick it up.

"I walked up to Justin and told him that if he had the money it would be better to just give it to me because if not I would have to search him. Justin said that he did not have the money and to 'search me,'" Holmes also said in the statement.

Holmes said she called a male janitor to witness the search in her office. Justin was made to remove his shoes, socks, jeans and shirt. The items were checked thoroughly before they were returned to him. She also acknowledged running her hands "outside of the waistband of his boxers."

"At this point, I knew that Justin did not have the money. I sat in front of him telling him that I was sorry that I had to search him. I again explained that as a school administrator, I had the authority to search him because two teachers thought he had the money as well as seven or eight students," she wrote.

In the statement she also accused Justin of having told "some lies" in the past. The money was later found on the floor of the cafeteria, although Holmes wrote that it hadn't been there when she and Justin left to go to her office.

Also in the statement, Holmes said she encouraged Justin to "build a good name" for himself, and that the witness also "added some words of wisdom" for the boy. Holmes also wrote that she hugged Justin.

In an interview with the Fayetteville Observer newspaper, Cox said Justin had helped the girl pick up the $20 that she had dropped. The girl later said the money was missing, Cox told the newspaper.