NEW YORK - Security screeners at Kennedy Airport violated procedures this fall when they asked two elderly women to show them medical devices concealed beneath their clothing, senior Homeland Security officials acknowledged in correspondence made public this week.
In a pair of letters to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and state Sen. Michael Gianaris, Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole and Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Betsy Markey said screeners at the airport will get refresher training on how to handle passengers with medical conditions.
The action followed complaints by Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Long Beach, N.Y., and Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, Fla., that they were effectively strip-searched while traveling separately through the airport in November.
Zimmerman, who weighs less than 110 pounds and is in a wheelchair, said that after being escorted into a private room she had to raise her shirt and lower her pants for a female TSA agent and remove her back brace, which was put through an X-ray machine.
Sherman said was humiliated when two female screeners made her lower her sweatpants so they could examine her colostomy bag.
In their letters to the New York politicians, Pistole and Markey disputed some of the details of the women's accounts.
They said Zimmerman had raised her shirt voluntarily. "At no point was the passenger asked to remove any items of clothing," the letters said. But in her letter, Markey acknowledged that Zimmerman should have been allowed to leave the brace on.
"It is not standard procedure for TSOs to screen back braces through the X-ray, and TSA apologizes for this employee's action," she wrote.
Likewise, she said Sherman had also initially lowered her pants voluntarily, and was never asked to remove any items of clothing, but added that "it is not standard operating procedure for colostomy devices to be visually inspected, and TSA also apologizes for this employee's action."
Zimmerman and her son didn't immediately return messages Wednesday from The Associated Press, but she told the Daily News that she was upset that federal officials were still insisting that she hadn't been asked to remove clothing.
"They're lying," she said. "I don't have a problem with the back brace. I have a problem with being strip-searched," she said.
Schumer reiterated his call for the TSA to designate a passenger advocate at each airport, "who vulnerable passengers can turn to when they feel they are being asked to undergo overly invasive, embarrassing screening procedures."
"The TSA needs to do a whole lot more than just provide `refresher training' to screening agents," he said.
Gianaris said it was a "positive step" for federal officials to acknowledge mistakes in the way the women were handled, but he said the agency still appeared to be dragging its feet in acknowledging the severity of the problem, and still needs to do more to ensure that passengers "don't have to make a choice between degrading themselves or passing through security."