Petoskey High School students say searches for vapes went too far
In April 2021, Tabatha Furgeson—a then-junior at Petoskey High School—left Botany class to go to the bathroom with friends. When her teacher noticed several girls out, he became suspicious, she said.
High school bathrooms are notorious places for teenagers to vape. Often a group of students will congregate there and share a vape pen.
So when a teacher walked in the bathroom and found two girls passing something between them, the teacher assumed it was a vape. Tabatha said the object was a tampon.
The students were escorted to the front office, where they were told the assistant principal, Robert Szukala, would search them for vapes.
Tabatha said the girls were all a little guarded. They were aware of Szukala’s Twitter account, where he allegedly liked several photos of young-looking women with exposed breasts and butts.
Szukala conducted the search in his office with a female secretary watching from the doorway, Tabatha said.
The teenagers who were dressed in leggings and jeans were told to empty their pockets.
Then, Tabatha said, Mr. Szukala asked them to turn around and bend over. He demonstrated first, moving his hands down his back to his calves while bending over.
One by one, Tabatha said the girls bent over as the assistant principal did a visual search. This incident was confirmed by two of the other girls.
No vape pens were found.
Tabatha said she returned to class shaken.
“It felt like a very violating experience,” she said. “Even though he never touched us it felt very physically violating to be in that position. I felt very exposed and very vulnerable.”
The girls reported it to Szukala’s boss, Principal Deidra Gamble, who immediately started an investigation. She interviewed everyone there and ultimately determined the girls had not been asked to bend over.
“Bending over is not part of the search procedure. And the investigation came back that procedures were followed,” she said.
Months later, the girls didn’t feel like their situation was resolved, so they went to the school board.
In response, the district investigated again and put Assistant Principal Szukala on leave while a private investigator looked into the incident.
In February, the private investigator told the district he also determined the girls were not asked to bend over.
IPR requested the report through the Freedom of Information Act, but the district denied the request, citing privileged information.
Szukala did not respond to requests for comment.
Szukala returned to school a few days after Principal Gamble updated the school community on their findings, when Tabatha and the girls organized an all-day protest in the student cafeteria.
There, two other girls stood up and said they had also been searched by the assistant principal on separate occasions and were uncomfortable with how he handled the search.
At some point, the protest escalated to screaming, both among the students and directed at Principal Gamble.
The principal recalled it was the worst day of her professional life.
She said she didn’t seek out additional information based on what students shared, but told the students to come to her if they’d like to make an official report.
Outside the school, two reports were made to police.
The first was dropped because it was determined to be an unsubstantiated claim. In the second, a mother told Petoskey Police Mr. Szukala made her daughter “pull her shirt down, exposing her cleavage, and had her bend down in front of him.”
The detective referred the matter back to the school.
Principal Gamble said the mother didn’t want the school to interview her daughter, so the school didn’t investigate further.
The school has a right to search students for contraband, including vapes. These searches are needed in order to protect the students, Gamble said.
She said the vast majority of vapes are discovered in a student’s hand or in the bathroom. But searches help the school find the vapes that are easily hidden, and punish students—which it sees as an effective way to deter them.
Still, there are rules schools must follow when searching students. University of Michigan Law School professor Kimberly Thomas said schools are required to have reasonable suspicion of contraband. The search also needs to be appropriate based on the student’s age and gender.
Whether a search is legal depends on the specific conditions of the search.
“If it’s a firearm versus a small amount of marijuana the constitutional question is going to be different because there’s a different danger to the student body based on what that infraction is,” she said.
Thomas said schools must weigh the severity of the offense, because student searches can be a troubling experience for young people.
“They feel degraded by searches that are invasive and intrusive,” she said. “Perhaps even more so given the nature of being a teenager and being very susceptible to impressions about their body or impressions about who they are as people.”
Gamble said the way they conduct searches at Petoskey High School should not make students uncomfortable, though she accommodates students who ask for two women to search them.
“There’s nothing sexual in nature about searches. We visually look at their sock line, look at their cuffs, look at their pockets,” she said. “We’re not touching students.”
Still, the school did change its policy based on recommendations from the outside investigator. They now video record every search, and require at least one adult of the same gender as the student to oversee it.
Szukala, who handles discipline, still conducts the searches.
“An administrator who had a full investigation and was found to have done nothing wrong, he has the right to do his job and it’s important that he’s able to do that,” Gamble said.
Tabatha said as long as Szukala is searching girls, she feels the policy changes won’t help.
She said she’s always gone to this school district since elementary school, where it’s always encouraged kids to work as a team, speak up and be safe.
“Here we are working as a team, and we are speaking up, trying to be safe, and they aren’t listening and they don’t care,” she said.
The principal said the district investigated three times and found no wrongdoing. She said there’s nothing left to be done.