Strip-Search Case Could Redefine Student Privacy

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

SAFFORD, Ariz. -- April Redding was waiting in the parking lot of the middle school when she heard news she could hardly understand: Her 13-year-old daughter, Savana, had been strip-searched by school officials in a futile hunt for drugs.

It's a story that amazes and enrages her still, more than six years later, though she has relived it many times since.

Savana Redding was forced to strip to her underwear in the school nurse's office. She was made to expose her breasts and pubic area to prove she was not hiding pills. And the drugs being sought were prescription-strength ibuprofen, equivalent to two Advils.

"I guess it's the fact that they think they were not wrong, they're not remorseful, never said they were sorry," April Redding said this week, as she and Savana talked about the legal fight over that search, which has now reached the Supreme Court.

And even more: When, days later, the principal met with April Redding to discuss what had happened, she said he was dismissive of an event so humiliating that her daughter never returned to classes at Safford Middle School.

"He said, 'There was an incident with some pills, and we had to find out if Savana had them, but you should be happy because we didn't find any on her,' " Redding recalled. "I got really upset and was telling him, 'Why did you do this to her? How could you do this to her?' "

From the yellow-brick school in this dusty town of cotton fields and copper mines to the Supreme Court, the lawsuit that April and Savana Redding brought carries the potential for redefining the privacy rights of students and the responsibility of teachers and school officials charged with keeping drugs off their campuses.

Matthew W. Wright, the school system's lawyer, declined to make his clients available for interviews. But in a statement, he said he regrets the news media's "reflexive reaction" to the case and underscored the dilemma school officials face between privacy and protection.

"Unfortunately, this tension sometimes places school officials in the untenable position of either facing the threat of lawsuits for their attempts to enforce a drug-free policy or for their laxity in failing to interdict potentially harmful drugs," he wrote.

To which Savana Redding's lawyer, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, replied: "The school official here heard an accusation that Savana previously possessed ibuprofen at some unknown location at some unknown time and jumped to the conclusion that Savana was presently storing ibuprofen and that she was storing it against her genitalia.

"It should be self-evident that that search is wrong."

But the federal judges who have reviewed the case have not been so sure.

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit eventually ruled that the search violated Savana's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and that Vice Principal Kerry Wilson could be found personally liable for ordering the search.

"The public school officials who strip searched Savana acted contrary to all reason and common sense," wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, who reached back to a previous court decision for the quote that has come to define the case:

"It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a thirteen-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude."

On the other hand, it apparently stumped other constitutional scholars. The first judge who heard the Reddings' case agreed with the school system that the search was justified because of accusations that school officials had heard about Savana. He threw out the suit.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld that decision.

And while eight judges on the circuit eventually ruled that the search was unconstitutional, several of the judges said Wilson could not have been expected to navigate the shifting legal standards for when such searches are allowed.

"Searches are often fruitless, and students' motives are often benign, but teachers, unlike courts, do not act with the benefit of hindsight," wrote Judge Michael Daly Hawkins.

The backdrop for the case is a 1985 Supreme Court decision that said school officials need to have only reasonable suspicions, rather than probable cause, to search individual students. That case involved the search of a student's purse, but the justices cautioned against a search "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."

Safford officials say in court briefs that they were on high alert in October 2003 because the year before, a student nearly died after taking prescription medication brought to school by a friend. And they said they had good reason to be suspicious of Savana Redding, despite her honor-roll grades and spotless disciplinary record.

They had received a complaint from one student that, before a dance earlier in the year, students drank alcohol at a party hosted by Redding and her mother. On the day of the search, a student told officials he had been given a prescription-strength ibuprofen tablet by a friend of Redding's.

When that girl was discovered to be carrying such pills, she said she received them from Redding.

Savana Redding said both allegations were lies -- the boy had not even been at the party, she said. But what happened next is not in dispute.

Vice Principal Wilson removed her from class and brought her to his office. She gave permission for a search of her backpack, which turned up nothing.

Then Wilson told her to go to the nurse's office with two female staffers. They told her to remove her socks and shoes, her stretch pants and pink T-shirt. They told her to move her bra from side to side, which exposed her breasts, and pull out the waistband of her underwear.

"I did what they told me to do -- I didn't want to look at them, though," Redding recalled. "If I had looked at them, I probably would have cried. I was trying not to."

She never attended classes again at Safford Middle School -- "I just couldn't go back," she said. She developed ulcers in high school, and the girl who, according to her mother, "would rather be at school than anywhere else" eventually dropped out.

Now 19, she took placement tests to get into nearby Eastern Arizona College and gives interviews to the national media in a small frame house just off the Old West Highway, which runs through the center of town.

"It's something that I really want to see through," Redding said of the lawsuit. "It's just that I'm one of those kinds of people who don't even want to get up in class and talk in front of people, so it's just going through it, over and over . . ."

She recently saw a flyer at the college that advertised a class that was going to discuss her case. She hears from "a lot of people [who] would find me through MySpace or something and then send me messages like, 'Hey, you're that girl that got strip-searched.' Yeah, I'm that girl, thanks."

But she didn't know about a new group on Facebook. It's called "Friends of Savana Redding."

"Really?" she asked.

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