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Strip search of student illegal, high court rules

Officials must show safety at risk, judges say

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post / June 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Arizona school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her on the suspicion she might be hiding ibuprofen in her underwear, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The decision put school districts on notice that such searches are “categorically distinct’’ from other efforts to combat illegal drugs.

In a case that had drawn attention from educators, parents, and civil libertarians across the country, the court ruled, 8 to 1, that such an intrusive search without the threat of a clear danger to other students violated the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search or seizure.

Justice David Souter, writing perhaps his final opinion for the court, said that in the search of Savana Redding, school officials overreacted to vague accusations that Redding was violating school policy by possessing the ibuprofen, equivalent to two tablets of Advil.

High court gives defendants the right to question forensic evidence. B1.

What was missing, Souter wrote, “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.’’

It was reasonable to search the girl’s backpack and outer clothes, but Safford Middle School administrators made a quantum leap in taking the next step, the opinion said.

“The meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own, demanding its own specific suspicions,’’ Souter wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.

“Judges are not qualified to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in the school environment,’’ Thomas wrote.

Administrators were only being logical in searching the girl, Thomas wrote.

“Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,’’ he wrote. “Nor will she be the last after today’s decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school.’’

The court’s virtual unanimity contrasted with the intense oral argument that seemed to exasperate the court’s female member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She said her colleagues seemed not to appreciate the trauma such a search would have on an adolescent. But yesterday’s opinion recognized just that.

“Changing for gym is getting ready for play,’’ Souter wrote. “Exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers’’ and is so degrading that a number of states and school districts have banned strip searches.

Redding described herself as shy and “not a good public speaker,’’ but said the long legal battle “was to make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else.’’

The case began when another student was found with prescription-strength ibuprofen and said she received it from Redding.

Safford Middle School assistant principal Kerry Wilson pulled the quiet honors student out of class, and she consented in his office to a search of her backpack and outer clothes. When that turned up no pills, Wilson had a school nurse take Redding to her office, where she was told to remove her clothes, shake out her bra, and pull her underwear away from her body, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.

No drugs were found, and Redding said she was so humiliated by the incident that she never returned to the school. Her mother filed suit against the school district, as well as Wilson.

Justices based their view on the court’s ruling in a 1985 case that said officials may not employ searches “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.’’

Francisco M. Negron Jr., general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said he was glad the court recognized that the school officials had acted “in good faith.’’ But he said the decision did not provide clear guidelines about how specific the accusation must be, or how dangerous the alleged drugs, before officials employ such a search.

“I think there will be more litigation,’’ he said.