By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009
Arizona school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her on the suspicion she might be hiding ibuprofen in her underwear, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The decision put school districts on notice that such searches are "categorically distinct" from other efforts to combat illegal drugs.
In a case that had drawn attention from educators, parents and civil libertarians across the country, the court ruled 8 to 1 that such an intrusive search without the threat of a clear danger to other students violated the Constitution's protections against unreasonable search or seizure.
Justice David H. Souter, writing perhaps his final opinion for the court, said that in the search of Savana Redding, now a 19-year-old college student, school officials overreacted to vague accusations that Redding was violating school policy by possessing the ibuprofen, equivalent to two tablets of Advil.
What was missing, Souter wrote, "was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear."
It was reasonable to search the girl's backpack and outer clothes, but Safford Middle School administrators made a "quantum leap" in taking the next step, the opinion said. "The meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own demanding its own specific suspicions," Souter wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. "Judges are not qualified to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in the school environment," he wrote.
He said administrators were only being logical in searching the girl. "Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments," he wrote. "Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."
The court's virtual unanimity was in contrast to the intense oral argument that seemed to exasperate the court's only female member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She later said her male colleagues seemed not to appreciate the trauma such a search would have on a developing adolescent.
"They have never been a 13-year-old girl," she told USA Today when asked about her colleagues' comments during the arguments. "It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."
But yesterday's opinion recognized just that. "Changing for gym is getting ready for play," Souter wrote. "Exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers" and is so degrading that a number of states and school districts have banned strip searches. The Washington region's two largest school districts are among them.
Redding said the decision "feels fantastic." She described herself as shy and "not a good public speaker," but said the long legal battle "was to make sure it didn't happen to anyone else."
The case, Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, began when another student was found with prescription-strength ibuprofen and said she received it from Redding.
Safford Middle School assistant principal Kerry Wilson pulled the quiet honors student out of class, and she consented in his office to a search of her backpack and outer clothes. When that turned up no pills, he had a school nurse take Redding to her office, where she was told to remove her clothes, shake out her bra and pull her underwear away from her body, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.
No drugs were found, and Redding said she was so humiliated by the incident that she never returned to the school. Her mother filed suit against the school district, as well as Wilson.
After years of legal proceedings, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit eventually ruled in her favor.
Justices based their view on the court's warning in a 1985 case that, although school officials have leeway in deciding when searches of students are reasonable, the officials may not employ searches "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."
Lower courts have had trouble deciding when that standard applies, Souter wrote, so Wilson should not be held personally liable for the incident. The court ruled, though, that Redding's suit could proceed against the school district.
Ginsburg and Justice John Paul Stevens criticized the decision to remove Wilson from the suit, saying he should have known the search violated Redding's rights.
"Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity," Ginsburg wrote.
Redding's attorney, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the court made clear that strip searches would be used only in "extraordinary circumstances" and that "the justices saw what the general public saw: that these school officials overreacted and traumatized a young girl."
Francisco M. Negrón Jr., general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said he was glad the court recognized that the school officials had acted "in good faith." But he said the decision did not provide clear guidelines about how specific the accusation must be, or how dangerous the alleged drugs, before school officials employ such an intrusive search.
"I think there will be more litigation," he said.
But many states and school boards, including some in the Washington area, are simply not allowing strip searches.
The policy in Fairfax County, for instance, specifies that "personal searches may extend to pockets; and to the removal and search of outer garments such as jackets, coats, sweaters, or shoes; and to items such as pocketbooks or backpacks." In Montgomery County, officials with the Department of School Safety and Security said searches are limited to outer clothing and pockets. The "preferred method is self-search," where a student is told what to remove, said school system spokeswoman Kate Harrison. A third person is always present for any search, she said.
Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.