Strip Searches in
The United States Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Safford Unified School District # 1 v. Redding, involving the strip search of a thirteen-year-old girl in an Arizona school district. Savana Redding, an honor student who had not been disciplined previously, was strip searched in 2003 by female school employees after a classmate was caught with prescription-strength ibuprofen that she alleged Savana supplied. Savana asserted that the strip search was stressful and humiliating, and no ibuprofen was found.
Following the search, Savana transferred to another middle school, but she never received a high school diploma. She and her mother challenged the constitutionality of the search, and the lower court dismissed their claim. Reversing, the Ninth Circuit held that the search was not reasonable and assessed damages against the assistant principal for authorizing the search in violation of clearly established law.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the school district argues that its actions were justified because of the increasingly significant drug problem among young students. The National School Boards Association contends that it will make school administrators hesitant to look for drugs if the Court awards Savana damages. However, those defending the student, including the National Association of Social Workers, the National Education Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists, note the relatively harmless nature of ibuprofen and argue that strip searches can result in trauma and emotional damage.
In previous decisions, the Supreme Court has allowed school authorities to conduct personal searches of public school students’ book bags, purses, and pockets based on reasonable suspicion that illegal or disruptive contraband is concealed, and random drug tests have been allowed for student participants in extracurricular activities. Because of the special school environment, the Court has not required school authorities to base personal student searches on probable cause that a crime has been committed, which is the standard police must satisfy to secure a search warrant. But until now, the Supreme Court has not addressed whether strip searches of students can be based on the lesser standard of reasonable suspicion.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide this case by the end of June. If the Court condones the strip search, this will expand the authority of school personnel in searching students for drugs and other contraband. A contrary finding that the strip search was unreasonable will have less impact, as most school districts currently refrain from conducting strip searches. There is some sentiment that the student should prevail but that damages should not be assessed because the law governing strip searches was not clearly established in 2003. Savana recently observed that regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, she feels that she has already won because of the significant publicity her case has received, which will likely deter some school authorities from strip-searching public school students.
Martha McCarthy is the Chancellor’s Professor and Chair, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Indiana University.