The Austin Chronicle

Supremes to Consider School Strip Search Case

By Jordan Smith, April 21, 2009, 12:01am, Newsdesk

According to officials at the Stafford United School District in Arizona, the public schools are on the "front lines of a decades-long war against drug abuse among students," and as such have had to adopt policies -- many of them of the zero tolerance kind -- to protect kids and keep drugs off campuses.

At least that's the argument underlying the Stafford Middle School's defense of a 2003 strip search of then 13-year-old Savana Redding, who officials suspected of having smuggled to school some prescription strength ibuprofen. Redding denied -- and still does -- that she brought the pills to school, and argues that the school had no evidence to suggest she'd engaged in any misconduct. Nonetheless, school officials removed Redding from class and ultimately sent her to the nurse's office where two female employees kept an eye out for contraband as Redding stripped down to her underwear. They found nothing.

Now, whether the school violated the Fourth Amendment in conducting the search is the question before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in the case (Stafford USD v. Redding) today, April 21. What the Supremes decide could chart a new course for understanding what privacy rights students have on campus.

In filings with the court, Stafford USD argues that it has a duty to keep kids safe -- in fact, they note that in 2002, a student had taken a pill at school and had almost died. And just days before the search of Redding, school officials say a parent had contacted the school, concerned about drugs on campus. Her son had been violent toward her at home and then was "suddenly sick to his stomach" she told the school. Ultimately the student, Jordan Romero, admitted he'd taken a pill given to him by another student. Romero gave school officials the names of students -- including Redding and a girl named Marissa Glines -- who he said were bringing drugs to school.

A few days later Romero approached the school principal and handed over a prescription ibuprofen that he said Glines had given to him. Glines was searched -- they found several more IBUs along with an unidentified blue pill -- and she told officials Redding had given her the pills. Wilson then hauled Redding into the office. She denied bringing any pills, and agreed to have her backpack searched. Wilson failed to find any contraband. Still, Wilson wasn't done: He had Redding go to the nurse's office where she was asked to strip and, once in her skivvies, was asked to "pull and shake her bra band as well as the elastic of her underwear" so they could see if any pills would fall out.

No pills fell from Redding's underwear, but the fallout from the decision to have Redding strip searched has been ongoing for six years. Redding and her mother argue that officials had no cause to humiliate Redding in such a manner -- Redding, who had been an honor student, ultimately transferred to another school because she was so embarrassed by what had happened. The family sued. The school district initially won -- there were several "key pieces of information" that tied Redding to drugs, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, the possession of which was clearly a violation of school policy. Ultimately, the school district's "strong interest both in safeguarding students" and in "enforcing the school's official policy" made the intrusive search legally justifiable, they ruled.

However, on rehearing by the full court, the majority disagreed, ruling in Redding's favor that strip-searching a 13-year-old girl in an effort to find ibuprofen was, indeed, intrusive and unconstitutional. The search clearly violated Redding's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, and was neither "'justified at its inception'...nor, as a grossly intrusive search of a middle school girl to locate pills with the potency of two over-the-counter Advil capsules, 'reasonably related in scope to the circumstances' giving rise to its initiation," the court wrote. Indeed, a less intrusive approach would've been to keep Redding in the office until a parent arrived, the court noted. Instead, it turns out, school officials never called Redding's mother nor did they allow Savana to call.

The Supremes are now being asked to decide whether the search was unreasonable -- and whether the principal that ordered the search is immune from being sued. It's been 24 years since the court last ruled that school officials need only "reasonable suspicions" to search a particular student, as opposed to the probable cause police officers need to obtain a warrant. Still, they noted, the search could still be considered "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."

The National School Boards Association has filed an amicus brief in favor of the Stafford USD, arguing that a "degree of deference" should be afforded to educators tasked with keeping schools safe. The federal government has also weighed in with an amicus brief that delicately straddles the school search fence: The search of Redding was unconstitutional, reads the brief -- a "school district may not order a strip search unless they reasonably suspect that the student is hiding contraband in a place that such a search will reveal" -- but generally, districts only need a reasonable suspicion for a search to be legal. (The feds also say that officials should be given immunity from suit, because the "illegality of the search was not clearly established.")

The court is expected to rule early this summer, before closing their term in June.

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