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Supreme Court Hears Student Strip-Search Case

Dan Berger,
Drug Law Reform Project
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April 22, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

The fundamental right to privacy of America’s students faced a critical reckoning yesterday before the nation’s highest court. The sun had scarcely risen in my neck of the woods (California), when the U.S. Supreme Court commenced oral argument in the case Safford Unified School District v. Redding, but I was wide awake and eager for news from the frontlines — and not just because the American Civil Liberties Union represents the plaintiffs in the proceedings. The case has the importance to rewrite the standard under which a student maybe strip-searched — and should be of monumental interest to anyone who values the lessons in liberty, or lack thereof, instilled in the Constitution’s future caretakers.

The Court is considering whether school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old Arizona girl when they strip searched her based on a classmate’s uncorroborated accusation that she previously possessed ibuprofen. And while a majority of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned 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,” the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.

When the facts are presented, it is difficult to imagine how anyone, let alone a constitutional scholar, could consider the search justified. Savana Redding, an eighth grade honor roll student at Safford Middle School in Safford, Arizona, was pulled from class on October 8, 2003, by the school’s vice principal, Kerry Wilson. Earlier that day, Wilson had discovered prescription-strength ibuprofen — 400 milligram pills equivalent to two over-the-counter ibuprofen pills, such as Advil — in the possession of Redding’s classmate. Under questioning and faced with punishment, the classmate claimed that Redding, who had no history of disciplinary problems, had given her the pills.

After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson demanded that she consent to a search of her possessions. Redding agreed, wanting to prove she had nothing to hide. Wilson did not inform Redding of the reason for the search. Joined by a female school administrative assistant, Wilson searched Redding’s backpack and found nothing. Instructed by Wilson, the administrative assistant then took Redding to the school nurse’s office in order to perform a strip search.

In the school nurse’s office, Redding was ordered to strip to her underwear. She was then commanded to pull her bra out and to the side, exposing her breasts, and to pull her underwear out at the crotch, exposing her pelvic area. The strip search failed to uncover any ibuprofen pills.

“The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had,” said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident. “I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry.”

The strip search was undertaken based solely on the uncorroborated claims of the classmate facing punishment. No attempt was made to corroborate the classmate’s accusations among other students or teachers. No physical evidence suggested that Redding might be in possession of ibuprofen pills or that she was concealing them in her undergarments. Furthermore, the classmate had not claimed that Redding currently possessed any pills, nor had the classmate given any indication as to where they might be concealed. No attempt was made to contact Redding’s parents prior to conducting the strip search.

If the above scenario fails to meet the criteria of an “unreasonable search,” than it is difficult to envision a set of facts that would. From the Washington Post, USA Today, AP, Los Angeles Times and the New York Times to CNN, CBS, Good Morning America and the Today Show, many in the mainstream media are documenting the case and editorializing in Savana’s favor, as well they should. Not that the Supreme Court should be taking cues from the nightly news, but I do hope that the justices share the viewpoint of so many people — constitutional scholars and laypersons alike who have encountered the case so far…

Disclaimer: I am not a constitutional scholar.

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