OCONTO – The superintendent of the Suring School District has been charged with six counts of false imprisonment related to the strip search of students on Jan. 18, Oconto County District Attorney Edward Burke announced Monday.
Burke had previously found the searches themselves did not violate state law, but said he then reviewed the state code relating to the ability of a school employee to confine a student.
“The State concludes that Kelly Casper lacked legal authority to confine the students in a small restroom located off the nurses office located in the Suring School Public School complex,” Burke said in a news release. “The facts and surrounding circumstances leads the State to conclude that the children involved did not consent to being confined.”
Casper was searching the students to find vaping devices.
False imprisonment is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $10,000 fine, or both. If convicted of all six counts, Casper faces up to 21 years in prison.
An initial appearance for Casper, 51, of Coleman, has been scheduled for March 23, according to online court records.
In the release, Burke wrote there is no dispute from any party that the children involved were directed to enter the small bathroom at the direction of Casper, who also directed the school nurse to accompany them to the room.
Burke also noted that Casper directed the children to remove their clothing once in the bathroom, then stood in the doorway while the children were in the room.
Once the children removed their clothing, he said, any opportunity they had to escape would have subjected them to further shame and embarrassment.
“None of the children involved were given the opportunity to leave,” he said. “The only choice they were given was to have the search conducted by a police officer or Casper."
Neither were the children given an opportunity to contact their parents prior to being confined in the bathroom, Burke added.
Whether Casper knew that the students did not consent and knew she did not have the lawful authority to detain the six children are questions of fact that are best left for a jury to determine based upon the evidence presented at trial, Burke said.
Raelene Helminger, whose 16-year-old daughter was searched by Casper, told the Press-Gazette Monday she "is glad something is being done to hold Casper accountable."
She said she hopes the charges mean Casper will be placed on administrative leave.
The school board will be making a statement at a special meeting addressing the searches Wednesday night, after meeting in closed session last week to discuss the strip searches.
The Suring School District did not respond to a call from the Press-Gazette on Monday.
"Our whole goal was to get her out of that school and away from our children," Helminger said of Casper. "We're hoping to see her put on administrative leave at the minimum or fired because she doesn't belong there."
In interviews with an Oconto County Sheriff’s Office investigator, the six girls recounted similar stories about how they were taken into a bathroom in the nurse’s office and told to remove their clothing to their underwear. Two of the girls were allowed to keep their leggings on because they said they weren’t wearing underwear.
The first girl searched, who denied having a vape on her person, said Casper slid her hands down her legs and behind. Nothing was found, but an empty vape cartridge fell out of the 14-year-old’s bra when she bent down to pick up her shoes.
In the subsequent searches, Casper checked the other bras more carefully. The complaint states the girls were told to lift or pull their bras away from their bodies, while one student claimed that her breasts were exposed.
Most of the other five students — ages 17, 16, 16, 16 and 15 — said Casper looked into the front of their bras and checked the band in the back, the complaint states.
One other cartridge was found in a girl’s jacket. Another girl admitted having a vape on her.
One of the girls told the deputy that “she felt violated and that the school should have no right to search students the way they had with her,” the complaint said.
According to the complaint, Casper said she was not trained to do any type of feeling or patting in a search, but provided the investigator with certificates showing different training she has attended through the years.
Through that training, Casper told the investigator she obtained information on locations where students hide items, how to properly question students, the need to have a second person to assist in the search and searching students and the laws pertaining to school searches.
The school nurse who Casper enlisted to assist with the searches said Casper talked to each one of the girls telling them they were "better than this," they were "making bad choices," and that she "really cared about them" and their future. Casper also said she didn’t want to be search them, but because they were going down the wrong road, the nurse added.
The nurse also stated that at no time was Casper ever demeaning or mean to them, and that none of the girls seemed to be bothered by the searches.
The nurse stated out of all the females involved with the search she was probably the one that was "most uncomfortable" with the searches, the complaint states.
The nurse started her job the day before the searches took place and contacted her supervisor at a clinic the day after the searches occurred because she was concerned the searches were inappropriate, according to police records.
The name of the clinic and the supervisor were redacted, whitened out, in the reports released by the sheriff's office.
The supervisor told the nurse the searches were improper per school district policy, and she shouldn’t talk to anyone except law enforcement about them, according to police reports. The supervisor told the school nurse that she would contact the clinic's legal team and start an investigation.
Not Casper's first time searching students, according to records
According to Oconto County Sheriff's Office documents obtained last week, Casper told officers she had completed training on searching students and learned to "never touch a child, never look at a child if they are nude." Casper said the searches she helped conduct in January were her first at Suring.
She estimated she had previously searched 20 students while with the Coleman School District, her previous employer.
Casper has served as superintendent of the Suring School District since 2015, according to DPI administrative salary reports. Before that, she served in several leadership roles with the Coleman School District.
She was principal of Coleman High School from 2002 to 2010, principal of Coleman high and middle school from 2011 to 2013 and principal of Coleman Elementary School in 2014.
Casper, along with several other Coleman School District staff, board members and community members, were subjects of a federal lawsuit in 2007 against the Coleman School District levied by former superintendent Paula Hansen that accused them of damaging her reputation and forcing her from her position.
The suit was dismissed in 2010. However, In court filings, a federal judge cited an investigatory report compiled by an outside consultant that said Casper, who was principal of Coleman High School at the time, had good qualities but was “generally ineffective as a principal and lacking management skills."
The report said she was "a cancer who was partly responsible for the dysfunctional relations of the district and could be expected to hinder the performance of superintendents in the future.”
"Given that this is now a pending criminal matter, no further comments will be made at this time to insure that all parties involved are being treated fairly," Burke said.
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Suring superintendent charged with false imprisonment for strip search