An Arizona school violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old school girl when it subjected her to a strip search to see if she was carrying the pain reliever ibuprofen, a narrowly divided federal appeals court ruled last Friday. Lower courts had held that the school did not violate Fourth Amendment strictures against unreasonable searches and seizures because officials have a legitimate interest in protecting students from prescription drugs.
Ibuprofen is available in lower doses as a non-prescription drug and is found in common medications such as Advil and Motrin to treat ailments like cramps and headaches. Higher doses of the drug require a prescription.
The ruling came in Redding v. Stafford Unified School District, in which honor student Savana Redding sued the district over the 2003 search. On the day in question, Safford Middle School Principal Kerry Wilson found two prescription strength ibuprofen tablets in the possession of one of Redding's classmates, who fingered her as the source. After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson informed her of the accusation, which she denied. Redding then agreed to a search of her possessions, which turned up nothing. Wilson then ordered a female administrative assistant to conduct a strip search in the school nurse's office. In the school nurse's office, Redding was ordered to strip to her underwear. She was then commanded to pull her bra out and to the side, exposing her breasts, and to pull her underwear out at the crotch, exposing her pelvic area. The strip search failed to uncover any ibuprofen pills.
"The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had," said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident. "I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry."
For the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, the search was not only humiliating, but unconstitutional. "Directing a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen, an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one, and which could be handled by keeping her in the principal's office until a parent arrived or simply sending her home, was excessively intrusive," Justice Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the 6-5 majority. "A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil. We reject Safford's effort to lump together these run-of-the-mill anti-inflammatory pills with the evocative term 'prescription drugs,' in a knowing effort to shield an imprudent strip search of a young girl behind a larger war against drugs," Wardlaw wrote.
"It does not take a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old girl is an invasion of constitutional rights. More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity. The self-serving statement of a cornered teenager facing significant punishment does not meet the heavy burden necessary to justify a search accurately described by the 7th Circuit as 'demeaning, dehumanizing, undignified, humiliating, terrifying, unpleasant [and] embarrassing,'" Wardlaw continued. "And all this to find prescription-strength ibuprofen pills. No legal decision cited to us, or that we could find, permitted a strip search to discover substances regularly available over-the-counter at any convenience store throughout the United States."
Not all the justices agreed. In his dissent, Justice Michael Daly Hawkins wrote: "We should resist using our independent judgment to determine what infractions are so harmful as to justify significantly intrusive searches. Seemingly innocuous items can, in the hands of creative adolescents, present serious threats. Admittedly, ibuprofen is one of the mildest drugs children could choose to abuse. But that does not mean it is never harmful."
The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, whose Adam Wolf, helped argue the case, was pleased. "Students and parents nationwide can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that adolescents cannot be strip searched based on the unsubstantiated accusation of a classmate trying to get out of trouble," said Wolf, co-counsel in the case with the law firms Humphrey & Petersen and McNamara, Goldsmith, Jackson & Macdonald, in a statement greeting the ruling. "This ruling is a victory for our fundamental right to privacy, sending a clear signal that such traumatizing searches have no place in America's schools."
Redding pronounced herself pleased, too. "I took my case to court because I wanted to make sure that school officials wouldn't be able to violate anyone else's rights like this again," she said in the same statement. "This was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, and I am relieved that a court has finally recognized that the Constitution protects students from being strip searched in schools on the basis of unreliable rumors."