High Court Debates Student Strip Searches

An attorney for an Arizona middle school told the Supreme Court today that strip searches are necessary to combat the ever-changing but omnipresent problems of drugs in  schools.

The argument came as the court considered whether the 2003 strip search of 13-year-old Savana Redding was a violation of her privacy and constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. Redding, then an eighth-grade student at Safford Middle School, was searched by two female staff members after a fellow student accused Redding of distributing extra strength Ibuprofen, a mild pain reliever.

School officials found no pills during the search, which required Redding to undress down to her undergarments and shake out her bra and underwear.

The case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, reached the high court after the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a three-judge panel and found in favor of Redding.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Redding, argued that school officials did not have sufficient evidence to conduct a strip search based solely on the word of another student. Strip searches, which the lawyers termed highly intrusive and “traumatic,” should only be allowed if specific evidence indicates that a student is hiding pills in undergarments.

“This official acted on nothing more than a hunch that Savana Redding was concealing loose Ibuprofen pills for oral consumption next to her genitalia,” attorney Adam Wolf told the court.

The school district argued that strip searches are justified in light of the dangers presented by prescription drug use.

School attorneys portrayed Safford Middle School as being on the front lines in battling prescription drug abuse, which is second only to marijuana in popularity among youths 12 to 17, according to a 2006 Office of National Drug Control Policy report.

 The attorneys pointed to a nearly lethal overdose of pills by a student at the school a year before the strip search to illustrate the danger. Matthew Wright, lead attorney for the school board, and Kerry Wilson, the vice principal, who is also named in the suit, asked the court to make a “bright line” rule that constitutionally would protect all searches for dangerous items in schools.

The justices sparred with both sides about how a ruling would affect the safety and privacy of youths.

Justice Antonin Scalia asked where to draw the line if strip searches are protected. Would other actions associated with adult prisons – such as body cavity searches – be allowed as well?

Much of the debate centered on how the type of substance should affect when to strip search. Justice David Souter seemed to question the wisdom of performing a strip search to find Ibuprofen, which he compared to Advil, an over-the-counter pain reliever.

“At some point it just gets silly,” Souter said.

Meanwhile, Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy questioned whether strict guidelines for strip searches would prevent administrators from keeping hard drugs, such as crack cocaine or methamphetamines, out of schools.

Similarly, Souter indicated that protecting students from potentially lethal drugs and weapons was the highest priority.

“My thought is that I would rather have a kid embarrassed by a strip search, if there is no other way, than have kids die,” he said.

Following the hearing, Redding, 19, said she thinks about the strip search every day.  Now attending community college where she studies psychology, Redding said, ” I basically did what [school officials] told me because that’s how you’re raised,” said Redding. “You do what you’re told.”

At an impromptu news conference outside the court, Wright, the attorney for Safford school district, said he understands that strip searches can be traumatic. But he argued that school officials need the “flexibility to act quickly to protect our children.”

A ruling against the school district and Wilson would have “a chilling effect” against combating drugs in schools, he said. “School officials will stop interdicting.”


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