Strip Searches in School

Monday, April 20, 2009

SAVANA REDDING was 13 years old and in eighth grade in Arizona in 2003 when she was strip-searched by two female school officials. Savana had been accused by a friend of handing out prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pills -- possession, use and distribution of which were prohibited without school permission. A teacher had found such pills in a planner Savana had lent to the friend.

School officials found no incriminating evidence after a search of Savana's backpack; a school nurse and a teacher -- both female -- then escorted Savana to a private room where they asked the teenager to strip down to her bra and underwear. The officials did not touch Savana but asked her to shake her bra and hold open her underwear to determine whether she was hiding the drugs on her person. They again found nothing.

Savana's mother sued the school system and several school officials individually, claiming that her daughter's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches or seizures had been violated. A trial court and later a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with the school. On rehearing, the full 9th Circuit, by a 6 to 5 vote, concluded that Savana's constitutional rights had been breached and that the vice principal who ordered the strip search should be held personally liable for monetary damages. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case tomorrow.

The episode must have been deeply humiliating and distressing for Savana; it may have been unconstitutional, according to the standard the Supreme Court has set. And there are serious questions about whether the school officials could have handled the situation better by, among other things, placing a call to Savana's mother before the strip search or forgoing a strip search without a specific tip or a more solid basis to suspect that she was hiding pills in her undergarments.

But does this possible lapse in judgment amount to a constitutional breach so egregious that school officials should be subjected as individuals to possible legal liability? Neither the law nor common sense compels such a conclusion.

The law has long given school officials special leeway to search lockers and backpacks to enable them to better protect students in their care. Instead of "probable cause" -- the standard law enforcement officers must abide by when conducting criminal searches -- schools need only show "reasonable suspicion" that a student has violated the law or the rules of the school to justify a search. A more intrusive search, the Supreme Court has ruled, requires that schools show that it was "justified at its inception" and "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." In rebuking Savana's school, the 9th Circuit departed from this sensible Supreme Court standard and issued a decision that would make it much harder for school employees to justify searches. The court also gave its blessing for Savana to go forward with her lawsuit against the vice principal.

The Supreme Court should strike down the lower-court ruling. School officials must have the flexibility to act quickly and decisively to avert all manner of danger. Fear of being sued for making reasonable if controversial judgment calls will only chill these efforts.

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