Strip Search Case in Arizona
Supreme Court declares strip-search of student unconstitutional
The 8-1 decision says Arizona school officials lacked justification for such an invasive search of a 13-year-old girl, who was suspected of hiding ibuprofen pills.
By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times
June 26, 2009
Reporting from Washington — After two decades of giving school officials wide leeway to search students for drugs or weapons, the Supreme Court set a legal limit on Thursday, ruling out of bounds the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl who was suspected of hiding pain relief
In an 8-1 decision, the court called this search degrading, unreasonable and unconstitutional.
Justice David H. Souter, in what could be his final opinion before his retirement, said a strip-search is "categorically distinct" from other efforts to find drugs or weapons on campus because it is embarrassing and humiliating to the children who are targeted.
In the past, the court has said school officials can search purses, backpacks or lockers if they have reason to believe a student has drugs. And twice, justices have upheld mandatory drug testing of high schoolers, including athletes, even when there was no reason to think any
of them was using drugs.
But requiring a student to remove her clothes goes too far, Souter said. He
suggested such a search would be justified only if a school official had strong
reason to believe a student was hiding a dangerous drug or a weapon in his or
Savana Redding, now 19, whose lawsuit in Arizona led to Thursday's ruling, said she was pleased and surprised by the outcome. "I'm very excited and very happy knowing it means this is not likely to happen to anyone else at school," she said. Redding will attend Eastern
Arizona College this fall, she said.
Her lawyer, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was encouraged that the court had made clear that students have privacy rights at school. "Schoolchildren are not little prisoners subject to search. This says the Constitution applies in school, and children
have rights that must be respected," he said.
School lawyers read the decision as nearly prohibiting strip-searches. "We don't think it is a horrible decision, but it is going to limit the discretion of school officials. They will think long and hard before they authorize a strip-search in the future," said Naomi Gittins, a lawyer for
the National School Boards Assn.
In 2003, Redding was an eighth-grader in the small town of Safford, Ariz., near the border with New Mexico. That fall, one boy had gotten violently ill from taking pills at school. When another girl was found with several white pills in a folder, she told Vice Principal Kerry Wilson
she got them from Savana. The pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen,
equivalent to two Advil tablets.
Savana said she knew nothing of the pills. Her backpack was searched. When no
pills were found, Wilson sent her to a nurse's office, where she was told to
remove her outer clothes and to pull out her bra and underwear to check for
Nothing was found, and the school officials did not apologize when Savana's mother, April, confronted them over the strip-search. The Reddings then filed suit, alleging a violation of Savana's rights under the 4th Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches by the
The decision in Safford Unified School District vs. Redding was only a partial victory for the Reddings, however. The justices threw out their suit against Wilson and other school officials on the grounds that the law against strip-searches was not "clearly established" at the time
Under federal law, public officials can be sued and held liable if they violate
a person's "clearly established" rights under the Constitution. Souter noted
that until Thursday, judges around the nation were divided over whether a
strip-search at school was unconstitutional.
Thursday's decision sets a standard for all future school searches, but it may
result in no compensation for Savana and her mother. The court sent the case
back to Arizona to consider whether the school district may face some liability.
Souter agreed that the vice principal had reasonable grounds for questioning
Savana about drugs and for searching her backpack. But he went much too far,
"In sum," he said, "what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the
combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable."
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. He complained that the ruling "grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge." It is the
second time this week that Thomas alone has dissented in a major case. On
the court rejected a challenge to the Voting Rights Act, but Thomas said he
would have struck down the law provision in question as unconstitutional.
In the school case, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they
would have gone further and upheld a liability ruling against the school
officials in this case.
Quoting from an earlier case, Stevens wrote that he had long believed that "it
does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a
13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude."
Ginsburg, the court's only woman, said the vice principal's conduct was inexcusable. He had no real evidence to suspect Savana of wrongdoing: He did not contact her mother, and he made Savana sit in the office for several hours after the strip-search, she said.
"Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity,"
Souter will retire after this Monday, when the court's final rulings are handed down. The nominee to succeed him, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, has taken a similarly strong stand against strip-searches. In 2004, she voted to uphold a suit against several Connecticut officials who had
authorized the strip-search of two girls at a juvenile detention center.
These were "troubled adolescent girls facing no criminal charges,"
Sotomayor wrote. Because of strip-searches' potential to humiliate the
victims, she wrote, "we should be especially wary" when children are targeted.
California and six other states forbid strip-searches at school. The others are Iowa, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin.
By Jonathan Turley
April 21, 2009
In Manassas, Va., a 9-year-old student was suspended for giving a friend a Certs breath mint under a policy that not only bans any drugs but also anything that looks like a drug. A girl in Oklahoma was suspended for bringing a prescription hormone tablet to school to deal with her ovarian disease. At least 20 students in four states have been suspended for bringing Alka-Seltzer to their schools. Under zero-tolerance policies, officials across the country have been suspending kids for possession of aspirin, cough medicine and even sunscreen. The question is what lessons are being taught to our children about basic rights of speech, privacy and due process. Even more troubling, what type of citizens are we shaping in this increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian atmosphere?
This controversy will be before the U.S. Supreme Court today in the case of Savana Redding. Six years ago, Savana was a 13-year-old eighth-grader when her friend was found with prescription ibuprofen pills. When the friend was searched, teachers at her Arizona school also found a day-planner that Redding had loaned her. The friend implicated Redding as the source of the ibuprofen. A good student without disciplinary problems, Redding was confronted by assistant principal Kerry Wilson. She denied any knowledge of the pills but agreed to let Wilson search her bag. When no ibuprofen was found, Redding was taken to the nurse's office and told to strip down to her underwear in front of the school nurse and an administrative assistant, both women. She stood in her underwear and bra as the two went through her clothes. Finding nothing, they then made the teen move her bra and panties, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.Redding sued. After a lower court found the search to be unreasonable, the Supreme Court took up the issue
This is a far cry from 1969, when the Supreme Court insisted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Over the next few decades, however, a new and more conservative majority chipped away at these rights to the point that most are now lost long before students even approach the schoolhouse gate. Indeed, the courts have allowed students to be punished for speech occurring outside of school, including on social networking sites.
The Supreme Court has given shifting and conflicting rationales to justify
school searches. In 1985, it ruled that students have little expectation of
privacy in schools
Then, in 2002, the court all but abandoned its earlier logic. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it did not matter if there was no history of drug problems in Tecumseh, Okla., and dismissed the notion that athletes warranted different treatment. The court allowed random and suspicionless testing of any students in extracurricular activities from 4-H to chess club. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, mocking the "nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh."In the current case, few people would disagree that the search of Redding's backpack was justified. After all, there had been a couple of prior incidents involving drugs at the school, and the teachers heard that students were planning to take the ibuprofen at lunch as a dare. Yet, the quantum leap from a bag search to a strip search shows how the court has created virtual feudal estates where students are treated as scholastic serfs.
The long-term effectThe impact of such a search on a 13-year-old girl being stripped in front of teachers is obvious and severe. Ironically, nurses at most public schools cannot give a student an aspirin without notifying and getting the consent of the parents. Yet, rather than simply hold the student for parents or police, the school can force the child to strip and expose herself without even notice to the parents.
We need to think seriously about the type of citizens being shaped in these authoritarian environments. These kids are learning that they must accept arbitrary and often illogical actions by public figures. This month in Virginia, an honors high school student was suspended and faces expulsion for taking her prescribed birth control pill in school. With such cases, the government appears to be training a generation of passive citizens ideal for subjugation and control.In the name of maintaining safe schools, we have created rights-free zones that treat free speech and privacy as virtual threats to education. When citizens learn rights as mere abstractions, we should not be surprised when they treat their obligations as citizens with the same disregard. Until rights join writing and arithmetic as required components of public education, our schools will remain laboratories of authoritarian living.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
April 21, 200
When constitutional historians sit down someday to compile the definitive Supreme Court Concordance of Not Getting It, the entry directly next to Lilly Ledbetter ("Court fails utterly to understand realities of gender pay discrimination") will be Savana Redding ("Court compares strip searches of 13-year-old girls to American Pie-style locker-room hijinks"). After today's argument, it's plain the court will overturn a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion finding a school's decision to strip-search a 13-year-old girl unconstitutional. That the school in question was looking for a prescription pill with the mind-altering force of a pair of Advil—and couldn't be bothered to call the child's mother first—hardly matters.
Editorialists and pundits have found much to hate in what happened to Savana Redding. Yet the court today finds much to admire. And even if you were never a 13-year-old girl yourself, if you have a daughter or niece, you might see the humiliation in pulling a middle-school honor student with no history of disciplinary problems out of class, based on an uncorroborated tip that she was handing out prescription ibuprofen. You might think it traumatic that she was forced to strip down to her underclothes and pull her bra and underwear out and shake them in front of two female school employees. No drugs were found. But even those justices lacking a daughter, a niece, or a uterus had access to an amicus brief in this case documenting the fact that student strip searches "can result in serious emotional damage" and that student victims of strip searches "often cannot concentrate in school, and, in many cases, transfer or even drop out." Savana Redding, herself a data point, described the search as "the most humiliating experience" of her life. Then she dropped out of school. And five years later, at age 19, she gets to listen in on oral argument in Porky's 3: The Supreme Court Says "Panties."
The case law on school searches is sparse. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., a 1985 case involving high-schoolers with pot in their purses, the Supreme Court determined that for a student search to be permissible under the Fourth Amendment there must be "reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school" and that the search cannot be "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."
Yet in recent years, the high court has slowly chipped away at the privacy rights of students—frequently based on the rationale that there were drugs!!! Somewhere in America!!! Drugs!!! Creating danger!!! (This led an annoyed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to dissent in a recent case that the court was peddling "nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas" to justify drug tests for any student with a pulse. )
Today's argument features an astounding colloquy between Matthew Wright, the school district's lawyer, and Justice Antonin Scalia, who cannot understand why "black marker pencils" are also considered contraband. "Well, for sniffing!" answers Wright. "They sniff them?" asks Scalia, delightedly. "Really?"
Or when Justice Ginsburg complains that the tipster in this case fingered Redding only after she herself was caught with drugs, Justice Samuel Alito muses that "the school could keep records on its students, like the police keep records on confidential informants, so unless this student had a proven record of having accurately ratted out a certain number of classmates in the past, she couldn't be believed."
When Wright suggests kids have no incentive to implicate innocent students because "students can be disciplined if they tell tales," Justice John Paul Stevens asks what discipline was meted out to the girl who falsely ratted out Savana Redding. Wright replies, cheerfully, "Oh, there was no discipline that I know of."
David O'Neill from the Solicitor General's office tries to thread the needle between allowing schools to conduct daily strip searches for black sniffy markers and chilling the school district's broad power to search for dangerous contraband. He wants the court to impose a higher standard before schools may conduct a strip search but gets into trouble with Scalia, who wonders what happens after "you search the student's outer garments, and you have a reasonable suspicion that the student has drugs." Scalia's almost chortling when he exclaims, "You've searched everywhere else. By God, the drugs must be in her underpants!"
O'Neill responds by explaining that "where you have reasonable suspicion that there is contraband in the underwear, then you could go directly to that location, and you wouldn't have to work from the outside in." Which only really works if the student wears his underwear on the outside, like Superman. Or, as Chief Justice John Roberts exclaims: "Oh, surely not! You are saying if you have reasonable suspicion that it's in the underwear, you shouldn't even bother searching the pockets?"
Adam Wolf, the ACLU lawyer who represents Redding, explains that "the Fourth Amendment does not countenance the rummaging on or around a 13-year-old girl's naked body." Wolf explains that he is arguing for a "two-step framework," wherein schools can use a lower standard to search "backpacks, pencil cases, bookbags" but a higher standard when you "require a 13-year-old girl to take off her pants, her shirt, move around her bra so she reveals her breasts, and the same thing with her underpants to reveal her pelvic area." This leads Justice Stephen Breyer to query whether this is all that different from asking Redding to "change into a swimming suit or your gym clothes," because, "why is this a major thing to say strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym?"
This leads Ginsburg to sputter—in what I have come to think of as her Lilly Ledbetter voice—"what was done in the case … it wasn't just that they were stripped to their underwear! They were asked to shake their bra out, to stretch the top of their pants and shake that out!" Nobody but Ginsburg seems to comprehend that the only locker rooms in which teenage girls strut around, bored but fabulous in their underwear, are to be found in porno movies. For the rest of us, the middle-school locker room was a place for hastily removing our bras without taking off our T-shirts.
But Breyer just isn't letting go. "In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear."
Shocked silence, followed by explosive laughter. In fact, I have never seen Justice Clarence Thomas laugh harder. Breyer tries to recover: "Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever. I was the one who did it? I don't know. I mean, I don't think it's beyond human experience."
It gets weirder. Wolf claims school administrators should have known better than to suspect that "Savana was currently concealing ibuprofen pills underneath her underpants for other's oral consumption," noting "a certain ick factor to this." The Chief Justice quickly replies that the ick factor doesn't attach when you are talking about "the brassiere as well, which doesn't seem as outlandish as the underpants, right?"
Oh, ick indeed. The search for a bright line rule about the expectations of student privacy has turned into a fight between a bunch of guys who still say "brassiere."
By now, even Justice David Souter has ditched Wolf, musing that if he were the principal in a school, he "would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search … than have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry."
On the courthouse steps after argument today, Redding is asked what she'd have wanted the school to do differently. "Call my mom first," she says. You see, we now have school districts all around the country finding naked photos of teens and immediately calling in the police for possession of kiddie porn. Yet schools see nothing wrong with stripping these same kids naked to search for drugs. Evidently teenage nakedness is only a problem when the children choose to be naked. And the parents? They are always the last to know.
Dahlia Lithwick is a Slate senior editor.
April 21, 2009
Los Angeles - For many 13-year-old girls, being featured – even fleetingly – on a national news program might be exciting. Not for me. My image flickered across the screen only briefly on "Dateline NBC" – it was during one of my basketball games, and it showed all of my
awkward teenage glory.
The context, however, made the whole thing more embarrassing than exhilarating: The program was all about how a group of my female classmates had been strip-searched after a gym class when several students reported some makeup, cash, and CDs missing. "Dateline"
producers had filmed several of our team's games to use as B-roll while the anchor discussed the case.
Though I wasn't one of the girls in the class forced to remove their clothing to prove they weren't hiding the stolen items, I still look back at the episode – which for a time nearly ripped our community apart – with anger and a sense of betrayal.
Soon after the ordeal took place, I overheard my parents and grandparents discussing it, saying they didn't think the administrators and police officers who orchestrated the search were wrong. I fled the house in tears, aghast that my own family thought it would have been OK for
me to have been made to undergo a humiliating act in front of a group of strange adults.
The incident at my school was not the first, nor the last in which young kids were made to strip as a result of school administrators bent on proving their "zero tolerance" for crime. The Supreme Court heard arguments in another such case tuesday – this one involving an 13-year-
old Arizona honors student who was strip-searched in 2003 when school officials suspected she possessed ibuprofen. The search turned up nothing.
Defenders of such tactics insist that limiting schools' ability to carry out searches will invite more drugs and danger into classrooms. Certainly, the sentiment of protecting young people within school walls is right, but the method of protection must match that sentiment.
If students are going to be subjected to increasingly restrictive policies – no cellphones, iPods, painkillers, etc. – certainly administrators should have to operate under some limitations as well. And having rules in place to prevent kids from being forced to expose their bodies
(something they'd be punished for if done by their own volition) might be a good place to start – particularly if all that's at stake is little more than some 99-cent bottles of Wet 'n' Wild nail polish and a copy of the "Grease" soundtrack.
In weighing potential threats, schools should take several factors into account: Does the suspected student pose an imminent threat? More important: Is the search itself reasonable? While that's open to interpretation, a good rule of thumb might be to get parental permission for
anything other than simple tactics like making a student empty his or her pockets.
Savana Redding, the Arizona student whom the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with before the case landed before the high court, still recounts the incident as "the most humiliating experience" of her life. My closest friend shares that pain. Eleven years later, she says
that being searched so intrusively left her with a deep emotional scar.
"In all the meetings and interviews afterward, the police and vice principal made it sound like they were just doing it to protect us," she recalls. "But they didn't care about protecting us in that locker room, when girls were crying and begging to call their parents."
A 2005 survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation revealed that high school students know shockingly little about some of their most basic constitutional rights – and it's no wonder when schools are trampling on them so blatantly.
In Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 case involving students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court famously noted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate." At the very least, that should include not
having to shed their clothes.
Sara Libby is legal editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
Justices appear unconvinced that the searches should be declared out of bounds. A 13-year-old honors student in Arizona was strip searched in a hunt for drugs.
David G. Savage
April 21, 2009
Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court gave a skeptical hearing today to
lawyers who were urging a rule against strip searching students at school.
Instead, most of the justices voiced concern that students could hide dangerous drugs such as crack cocaine or heroin in their clothes.
The case before the court concerns a 13-year-old Arizona girl who was strip searched in a nurse's office after a school friend said the girl, Savana Redding, had brought white pills to school. The pills were extra-strength ibuprofen, which is commonly taken for headaches and
year, a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the strip search of Savana
Redding was unreasonable and unconstitutional since the pills were ibuprofen.
And the court held that the school officials who ordered the search were liable
But in their comments and questions, most of the justices signaled they are inclined to overturn that decision.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the school officials should be shielded from being sued since the law governing school searches had not been clear. In the past, the court has said public officials cannot be held liable for damages unless they violate a "clearly established"
Anthony M. Kennedy, though a swing vote on many issues, has voted regularly to
give police and school officials greater leeway to search for drugs.
objected when Adam Wolf, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer for Redding,
argued that the strip search was unreasonable because there was no evidence she
was hiding anything in her underwear.
nature of drug irrelevant?" he asked. "What if it was meth to be consumed at
insisted that, even in this instance, school officials would not have reasonable
grounds for strip searching a 13-year-old honors student. There was no reason to
think she had pills in her underwear, he said.
That reply did not appear to persuade Justice Stephen G. Breyer. It is "a logical thing" for adolescents to hide things, he said. A student might stick something "in their underwear," he added, provoking laughter when he said that this had happened to him at school. "It's not
For a moment, Justice David H. Souter tried to put himself in the mind of the vice principal who ordered the strip search of Savana Redding. The year before, a middle-school student had become violently ill after taking mysterious pills at school. The official may have feared a
embarrassment [of one student] than the risk of violent sickness and death,"
A lawyer for the Safford Unified School District urged the justices to rule that school officials have broad authority to search students. The vice principal in this case had been told some students had pills, and they were to be passed around at lunchtime. Based on that report, "he
entitled to search any place where contraband might reasonably be found," said
Matthew Wright, district's lawyer.
about a "body cavity search?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia.
replied that no school official would undertake such a search, but he insisted
it would be legal.
the ACLU lawyer, said it would "send shudders down the spine" of children across
the nation if the high court approves strip searches at school.
Justice Department lawyer urged the justices to say that strip searches are out
of bounds unless officials have strong, clear evidence that a student is hiding
something dangerous in his or her underwear.
tone of the argument gave little hint the justices will set such a limit,
A ruling in the case of Safford School District vs. Redding will be issued by late June.
Strip-searches at schools go to Supreme Court
In an Arizona case, administrators were worried about campus safety, while the student just felt humiliated.
David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times
April 19, 2009
Reporting from Safford, Ariz. — When Savana Redding, now 19, talks of what
happened to her in eighth grade, it is clear that the painful memories linger.
She speaks of being embarrassed and fearful and of staying away from school for two months. And she recalls the "whispers" and "stares" from others in this small eastern Arizona mining town after she was strip-searched in the nurse's office because a vice principal suspected
might be hiding extra-strength ibuprofen in her underwear.
U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear her case. Its decision, the first to
address the issue of strip-searches in schools, will set legal limits, if any,
on the authority of school officials to search for drugs or weapons on campus.
limits on searches are imposed, the school district warns, its ability to keep
all drugs out of its schools would be reduced.
In this case, said school district lawyer Matthew Wright, the vice principal was concerned because one student had gotten seriously ill from taking unidentified pills.
"That was the driving force for him. If nothing had been done, and this happened to another kid, parents would have been outraged," Wright said.
In California and six other states, strip-searches of students are not permitted.
Only once in the past has the high court ruled on a school-search case, and it sounds quaint now. It arose in 1980 when a New Jersey girl was caught smoking in the bathroom, and the principal searched her purse for cigarettes.
justices upheld that search because the principal had a specific reason for
looking in her purse. However, they did not say how far officials could go --
and how much of a student's privacy could be sacrificed -- to maintain safety at
the issue in Safford Unified School District vs. Redding.
Savana was an honors student, shy and "nerdy" when the she began eighth grade at Safford Middle School, she says.
She first learned she was in trouble when Vice Principal Kerry Wilson entered math class one morning and told her to come with him to the office.
in search of white pills.
Wilson knew that a boy had gotten sick from pills he obtained at school. And that morning, another eighth-grader, Marissa Glines, was found with what turned out to be several 400-milligram ibuprofen pills tucked into a folded school planner. A few days before, Savana had lent
the folder. The vice principal also found a small knife, a cigarette and a
lighter in it.
asked where she got the pills, Marissa named Savana Redding.
"could only be obtained with a prescription," Wilson reported.
Commonly used for headaches or to relieve pain from menstrual cramps, ibuprofen
is marketed under brand names including Advil and Motrin with recommend doses of
200 and 400 milligrams.
"District policy J-3050 strictly prohibits the nonmedical use or possession of
any drug on campus," Wilson explained later in a sworn statement.
said she knew nothing of the pills in the folder.
asked if he could search my backpack. I said, 'Sure,' " she recalled. When
nothing was found, Wilson sent Savana to the nurse's office, where the nurse and
an office assistant were told to "search her clothes" for the missing pills.
said she kept her head down, embarrassed and afraid she would cry. After
removing her pink T-shirt and black stretch pants, she was told to pull her
underwear to the side and to shake so any pills there could be dislodged.
"the most humiliating experience" of her young life, she said.
not find any pills during our search of Savana," Wilson reported.
her mother arrived at the school to pick her up, another student called out to
her: "What are you going to do about them strip-searching Savana?"
and angry, April Redding said she marched to the principal's office, then to the
superintendent's office nearby. Both denied at first knowing that a student had
wrong. I didn't think anything like that could happen to my daughter at school,"
she said, wiping a tear.
later met with the principal but left, unsatisfied: "He said you should be happy
we didn't find anything."
Contacted at the school recently, Wilson declined to discuss the case, as did
other school officials.
one apologized, April Redding sued the school district for damages. Her lawyers
from the American Civil Liberties Union say the strip-search went far beyond the
bounds of reasonableness, especially when there was no imminent danger.
strip-search can be deeply embarrassing and leave an emotional scar, they add.
however, judges have been almost evenly divided over whether Savana's rights
federal magistrate in Tucson held that the search was reasonable because the
vice principal was relying on the tip from another student. In a 2-1 decision,
the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
year, however, the full 9th Circuit Court took up the case and ruled 6 to 5 for
Kim McLane Wardlaw said the vice principal's action defied common sense as well
reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does
not subject a 13-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the
danger of Advil," she wrote.
school is not a prison. The students are not inmates," she added, noting that
juvenile prisoners are given more rights than were given Savana.
the dissenters agreed the search was unreasonable, but they said the officials
should be shielded from suits because the law has been unclear.
three other dissenters, including Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, said the search was
reasonable based on what Wilson knew at the time.
fall, the school district appealed to the Supreme Court, saying it "finds itself
on the front lines of the decades-long war against drug abuse among students."
The justices voted in January to hear the case, a good sign for the school
recent years, national school officials say they have heard of only a few
instances of strip-searches at schools.
the search, Savana refused to return to the middle school. She did not want to
be in the presence of the nurse or the office assistant who she said humiliated
went to an alternative high school in Safford but dropped out before graduating.
She is taking psychology classes at nearby Eastern Arizona College.
She and her mother plan to travel to Washington to hear her case argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday. For Savana, it will be her first trip on an airplane.
Strip search review tests limits of school drug policy
By Joan Biskupic,
April 15, 2009
SAFFORD, Ariz. — Eighth-grader Savana Redding was scared and confused when an assistant principal searching for drugs ordered her out of math class, searched her backpack and then instructed an administrative aide and school nurse to conduct a strip search.
"I went into the nurse's office and kept following what they asked me to do," Savana, now 19, recalls of the incident six years ago that she says still leaves her shaken and humiliated. "I thought, 'What could I be in trouble for?' "
That morning, another student had been caught with prescription-strength ibuprofen and had told the assistant principal, Kerry Wilson, that she'd gotten the pills from Savana. The nurse and administrative assistant, both women, were alone with Savana in the nurse's office when
they asked the girl to take off her shoes and socks, then her shirt and pants. The two women then asked Savana to pull open her bra and panties so they could see whether she was hiding any pills. None was found.
Drug searches, along with drug tests for students in athletics and other extracurricular activities, have become common in schools across the nation. But the search of Savana at Safford Middle School on Oct. 8, 2003, ignited a legal dispute that has landed before the U.S.
Supreme Court — and could transform the landscape of drug searches in public schools.
Tuesday, the nine justices will hear Safford officials' appeal of a lower court decision that said the administrators violated Savana's constitutional rights and should be held financially responsible.
Attorneys for the Safford school district, about 80 miles east of Tucson in the Pinaleño Mountains, portray the school as "on the front lines of a decades-long war against drug abuse among students" and defend the search of Savana as necessary.
They echo the concerns of administrator groups nationwide who say increasingly younger students are experimenting with drugs and are abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
They cite a 2006 Office of National Drug Control Policy report that said more than 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs in 2005 and that youths ages 12-17 abused prescription drugs more than any other illicit drug except marijuana.
If the Supreme Court upholds the search, it will give administrators broad discretion on drug searches across the board.
"If they decide that this was justified, then anything goes," says Sarah Redfield, a Franklin Pierce Law Center professor who follows court rulings on student searches.
Calling the ibuprofen a "relatively harmless medication," Redfield says that "this was not a search for a weapon or potential threat. If they do say you can do this one, I can't imagine what search won't be allowed."
Yet, if the court strikes it down and also holds school administrators financially responsible, as Savana Redding and her mother want, the decision could produce a new wariness among administrators.
Francisco Negrón, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, which is siding with the Safford officials, says if the high court holds district officials liable it will restrain administrators who need flexibility to deal with problems.
"I don't think it (a strip search) is the preferred method," Negrón says, "but it may be in certain circumstances."
The case, coming to the justices a day after the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, occurs in a broader context of schools trying to balance student freedom with discipline. In some cases, administrators are resorting to "zero-tolerance" rules that impose
strict punishments for a variety of transgressions.
"After Columbine, schools became more rigid," Redfield says. "But we did have some backlash against zero-tolerance policies, and there are now less absolute policies in schools." The next phase of student searches and discipline could depend in part on how the court rules in
Safford Unified School District v. Redding.
Defining students' rights
In 1985, the Supreme Court for the first time specifically applied the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches to students, in a case involving a New Jersey freshman whose purse was searched after she was caught smoking in a bathroom.
The justices upheld the search, yet emphasized that students have legitimate expectations of privacy and judges should balance schools' interest in enforcing rules to protect all students with individual students' privacy rights.
Since then, the court has heard few challenges to student searches. Cases that have come before the justices during the past two decades have involved general random searches for drugs, not situations in which individuals were targeted.
In 1995 and 2002 rulings, the Supreme Court upheld drug testing of urine — considered a type of "search" — for students involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
In those cases, the justices in the majority emphasized the importance of deterring student drug use.
Safford officials take that tack in their arguments against April Redding, who sued on behalf of her daughter.
In Savana's case, officials say, they were aware of problems with drinking and drug abuse at the middle school and had a tip that Savana might have unauthorized prescription drugs.
Phoenix lawyer Matthew Wright — who represents the school district and Wilson along with school nurse Peggy Schwallier and administrative assistant Helen Romero — said in his legal brief that administrators were suspicious of Savana Redding from the start of the school
year because they detected the smell of alcohol around a small group of students that Savana was among at a school dance.
Savana's mother contends the school is saying such things to try to justify the strip search. She notes that her daughter was an honor student who was never disciplined. Wright counters in his brief that "her assertion should not be misread to infer that (Savana) never broke
school rules, only that she was never caught."
When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled 6-to-5 against the Safford officials, it expressed skepticism about the student tip that Savana had pills and said, "At minimum, Assistant Principal Wilson should have conducted additional investigation to corroborate (the)
'tip' before directing Savana into the nurse's office for disrobing."
Wright declined requests for interviews with school officials. In an e-mail to USA TODAY, he wrote: "In our estimation, much of the public discussion of and reflexive reaction to the case has stemmed from a superficial understanding of the facts."
In arguing for wide latitude for administrators to conduct drug searches, Wright told the justices in court briefs that schools need "flexibility to respond swiftly … to protect students and maintain order. Rarely will that flexibility be needed more than when school officials confront
the threat of drug abuse."
The U.S. Justice Department, charting a middle course, says in a court brief that the search of Savana did not satisfy the standards of the high court's 1985 ruling because Wilson and the other school officials lacked "reasonable suspicion" that any pills would be hidden in the
girl's underwear or on her body.
Yet, the department also says school officials should not be held financially responsible because it was not clear the search was unconstitutional. Separately, Justice Department lawyers endorse the school officials' concern about students possessing pills, saying, "Many
illegal drugs, such as Ecstasy, come in pill form, and it is often difficult to distinguish those pills from legitimate medication."
The National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators side with Safford officials, noting that recent reports, including from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, highlight an "alarming trend with respect to prescription and (over-the-
counter) drug abuse — precisely the kind of trend to which educators are highly attuned."
They say the 1985 case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. failed to set a clear standard for what steps school officials may take when searching for drugs. "Now more than ever," they add, "schools are in the forefront of addressing dangers to our youth, including their growing abuse of
'They are dangerous policies'
Among those sympathetic to Savana Redding's point of view is Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group that advocates a more moderate approach to drug searches and penalties.
"We think the school went way beyond what it needed to do for what was at issue: ibuprofen," Krane says. "We can only imagine what it would do for an illegal drug such as marijuana."
Krane insists that intrusive searches are counterproductive to administrators' goals, especially with students who might be seeking someone to talk to about possible drug abuse. "They need to be able to go to someone in authority, but zero-tolerance policies don't foster trust,"
Krane says. "The intentions may be well and good, but they are dangerous policies."
The National Association of Social Workers — joined by the National Education Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children — sides with April
Redding in a court filing. "Social science research demonstrates that strip searches can traumatize children and adolescents and result in serious emotional damage," they say, citing studies in educational and legal journals.
Carolyn Polowy, lawyer for the social workers association, says in an interview that adolescents — typically shy and awkward about how they look — are particularly sensitive to being forced to expose their bodies.
"We're sympathetic with the schools, but a strip search is sort of the capital punishment of searches," Polowy says. "It should be rare, if at all."
Redding's lawyer, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, emphasizes the trauma to a teenage girl told to take off her clothes at school.
"A child's 'private parts' are not subject to observation by school officials without significant justification," Wolf says in his filing to the justices. Wolf says in an interview that none of the information school officials had should have led them to think Savana was hiding pills in her
During an interview in the small home she shares with her mother, an aunt and her aunt's family, Savana says she was especially shy about her body because she is overweight. As a middle-schooler, she said, she never wore tank tops or shorts.
Now that her case has become so public, she has heard from hundreds of people, mostly students expressing support, many writing research papers on school searches. She is taking some classes at a community college and trying her hand at creative writing. After the strip
search, Savana never returned to Safford Middle School. She transferred to other schools but never obtained her high school degree.
She hopes to pass a GED test and become a counselor.
As for the search in the nurse's office, she often wonders whether she should have protested rather than follow the school officials' orders.
Says Savana: "I think about it every day."