Federal Court Hears Case Today of 13-Year-Old Student Strip Searched for Ibuprofen

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
March 26, 2008 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appellate court today heard oral arguments over the constitutionality of a strip search performed on a 13-year-old Arizona girl by school officials looking for ibuprofen. A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the search constitutional on September 21, 2007, greatly expanding the circumstances under which schools may strip search students. That decision will now be reviewed by the full Ninth Circuit. The American Civil Liberties Union is co-counsel in the case.

“A strip search, particularly of an adolescent, is a grave invasion of privacy and should be reserved for emergency situations,” said Andrew Petersen, an attorney with the law firm Humphrey & Petersen, who is arguing the case today. “The misguided actions of these school officials must not become the status quo in our nation’s schools.”

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 or substance abuse, had given her the pills. Safford maintains a zero-tolerance policy toward all prescription medicines, including prescription-strength ibuprofen.

After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson presented Redding with the ibuprofen pills and informed her of her classmate’s accusations. Redding said she had never seen the pills before and agreed to a search of her possessions, wanting to prove she had nothing to hide. 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.

“This degrading and damaging strip search of a teenage girl was justified by nothing more than one student pointing the finger at another,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “It defies common sense and violates the Constitution for people – especially adolescents – to be strip searched for ibuprofen based solely on uncorroborated claims of other students trying to get themselves out of trouble.”

The ACLU is co-counsel in the case with the law firms Humphrey & Petersen and McNamara, Goldsmith, Jackson & Macdonald. In addition, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Rutherford Institute, an international nonprofit civil liberties organization, filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Redding’s legal claims. NASW’s brief pointed out that strip searches can have a devastating emotional impact on students, deeply and irrevocably affecting the victims’ relationship with their peers and school officials.

The lawsuit names as defendants the Safford Unified School District, vice principal Kerry Wilson, school administrative assistant Helen Romero and school nurse Peggy Schwallier.

Additional information on the case, including the group’s legal filings, is available online at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/search/34294prs20080303.html

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