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TSA Admits To Mistakes After S. Fla. Seniors Allege Abuses

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Lenore Zimmerman, 85, said she was strip searched at JFK airport.  (Source: CBS4)

Lenore Zimmerman, 85, said she was strip searched at JFK airport. (Source: CBS4)

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The Transportation Security Administration has issued an apology more than a month after several South Florida elderly women, each dealing with serious medical conditions, were allegedly strip searched at JFK Airport as they were on their way to Fort Lauderdale.

In a letter sent to New York Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), the agency admits some standard operating procedures were not followed in the cases of Lenore Zimmerman and Ruth Sherman, however, the TSA determined that there is no evidence that TSA employees conducted strip searches.  The agency also stated “at no time are TSA agents authorized to conduct strip searches of passengers.”

Sen. Gianaris, along with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), called on the TSA to put specially trained passenger advocates at every airport after the incidents were first reported.

The first incident took place in November. Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Coconut Creek, suffers from congestive heart failure and has a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted in her. She said she was strip searched at JFK.

“TSA came over and asked me to step into a private room,” Zimmerman said. “They asked me to take my clothes down and they strip searched me.”

In the letter to Sen. Gianaris, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Betsy Markey said Zimmerman voluntarily raised her shirt before being escorted to a private screening area, where she removed what she said was a money belt. It was actually a back brace which was screened through an x-ray machine and returned. Markey said it is not standard procedure to screen back braces and the TSA apologized for this action. Markey also said Zimmerman was never asked to remove any clothes.

“It will never happen again!,” Zimmerman vowed. “I’ll tell the to call a cop, I will not do that ever again.”

Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, said it happened to her too when she was flagged because of a bulge in her pants caused by her colostomy bag. Sherman said she was taken to a private room and searched.

Markey conceded in the letter that Sherman was forced to show security agents her colostomy bag which is a violation of policy, but at no point, was she asked to remove any of her clothes.

The letter said that Sherman, who uses a wheelchair, was escorted into a private area after she voluntarily lowered her pants to show screeners the device. In the private room, she was patted down and told to show agents the colostomy bag, the letter stated.

“This is a lie; what they said, it’s a lie,” Sherman told CBS4′s Ted Scouten. “These people who pulled me aside, I don’t even think they were trained. They were like two fat women who took me into another room.”

TSA screeners at JFK are currently receiving “refresher training on how to respectfully and safely screen passengers with disabilities or medical conditions to ensure all the proper procedures are followed,” according to Markey’s letter.

A third South Florida woman also claimed a TSA screener went too far on the same day as Zimmerman’s incident.

Linda Kallish, of Boynton Beach, is diabetic and for 7 years has flown with an insulin pump and a monitor. She told CBS4 News that she was taken into a private room, ordered to remove her pants and had her body and items given the once over. She called it excessive. Kallish’s claims were not addressed in the letter from the Department of Homeland Security.

On Wednesday the TSA issued a clarification of their response:

“As we stated previously, TSA takes these matters very seriously and has apologized that these passengers felt they had negative experiences.  A thorough investigation determined that strip searches did not occur in any of these cases, nor has it ever been TSA’s protocol. Our investigation concluded that at no point were any of the passengers asked to take off clothing during the screening process.  We also determined that:

1). Due to a miscommunication, one of the passengers removed a back brace that was X-ray screened because the officer understood it was a money belt.

2). In another instance, an officer should not have asked another passenger to present her medical device. 

As previously stated, JFK Officers received refresher training to include scenario-based exercises on how to respectfully and safely screen passengers with disabilities or medical conditions to ensure all the proper procedures are followed. Our goal every day is provide the highest level of security, in the most respectful and efficient way possible.

Additionally, we have since launched the TSA CARES Hotline to enhance our customer support for passengers with disabilities or medical conditions. Travelers can call toll free at 1-855-787-2227 prior to travelling to address questions about screening policies, procedures, and what to expect at the security checkpoint. To date, more than 800 passengers with disabilities or medical issues have used the hotline.

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