SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union applauded a federal appellate court ruling today that 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 possessed ibuprofen. Today’s 6-5 ruling from an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reverses an earlier decision by a divided three-judge panel of the same court. Eight of the eleven judges on the en banc court held that the strip search violated Savana’s constitutional rights, and a six-judge majority further held that the school official who ordered the search is not entitled to immunity as a result of his actions.
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.”
In response to today’s court victory, Redding said, “I took my case to court because I wanted to make sure that school officials wouldn’t be able to violate anyone else’s rights like this again. This was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, and I am relieved that a court has finally recognized that the Constitution protects students from being strip searched in schools on the basis of unreliable rumors.”
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.
"As recognized by the court, this type of
overreaction on the part of school officials is simply indefensible and
unacceptable given the absence of any emergency situation," said Daniel
Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona, which was part of the
legal team challenging the search. "The behavior was so far outside
established constitutional norms, the principal should have known he was
violating the fundamental privacy rights of the student."
“A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to ‘protect’ her from the danger of Advil,” the court wrote in today’s opinion. “We reject Safford’s effort to lump together these run-of-the-mill anti-inflammatory pills with the evocative term ‘prescription drugs,’ in a knowing effort to shield an imprudent strip search of a young girl behind a larger war against drugs.”
“It does not take a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old girl is an invasion of constitutional rights. More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity,” the court continued.
In addition to finding the strip search unconstitutional, the court held that vice principal Wilson cannot claim qualified immunity and is, therefore, financially liable in the case.
"This was the case of an innocent student forced to endure a strip search by administrators who later claimed that it was 'no big deal'," said Andrew Petersen, an attorney with Humphrey & Petersen. "Strip searching a student is a very big deal, as made clear by today's decision."
The case is, Redding v. Safford Unified School District, No. 05-15759.