The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, a case that originated in a school administrator's decision to subject then 13-year-old Savannah Redding to a strip search after another student said she had obtained prescription-strength Ibuprofen tablets from her.
US Supreme Court
The case began when administrators in Safford, Arizona, received a tip from a student and his parents that another child possessed the tablets and planned to give them to other students at lunch. Authorities confronted the second student and found Ibuprofen tablets in her possession. The second student told administrators she had obtained the pills from Redding.
Redding was escorted to the principal's office, and Redding's backpack and outer clothes were searched, but no pills were found. She was then told to remove her outer clothing in front of the school nurse and an administrative assistant, both female. Standing in her underwear, she was ordered to pull out her bra and underwear to allow any hidden pills to fall free. None did.
Redding and her parents then sued the school district for violating her constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Redding won in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and the school district appealed to the Supreme Court.
The justices' questions during oral arguments Tuesday suggested that, as they sought to find a balance between student privacy and public school safety, they were tilting toward the latter. They appeared inclined to give school administrators broad authority to do what is necessary to protect kids from drugs.
That's what attorneys for the school district argued. "Searching any place where she might be reasonably hiding that contraband was constitutionally permissible" because the school district was acting as guardian, not law enforcement, said Matthew Wright, counsel for the district. "It's not like a criminal issue where they're trying to prosecute. This is a case where they're trying to protect," Wright said. "It is best for this Court to defer to their judgment... and not second-guess those rules."
Justice David Souter, noting that the drug at issue was Ibuprofen, interjected that, "At some point, this gets silly."
Still, Souter also remarked that it could have been a more dangerous drug, and the consequences of not acting could be tragic: "My thought process is, I would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search, if we can't find anything short of that, than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry."
Justice Antonin Scalia pressed Wright about whether a body cavity search would be permissible. While Wright tried to dance around that question, saying body cavity searches were not done because school officials were not trained to do them, Scalia kept pressing. In the end, Wright conceded that "I could see that result."
Despite concerns about how far school administrators could go in searching for drugs, the justices seemed even more concerned about more dangerous drugs. The justices repeatedly asked hypothetical questions about what if it had been heroin or methamphetamine instead of Ibuprofen.
When it came time for Redding's side of the case to be argued, a Justice Department attorney took the lead. "We believe that without some particularized suspicion or some specific indication that this, the location, was a likely one to contain the drugs, that this search was excessively intrusive," said attorney David O'Neil. "And this is not a new standard."
"We agree with the federal government that before conducting an intrusive strip search a school needs to have location-specific information," argued Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "And while this case can begin and end with that well-accepted proposition, it's also important to recognize that a school needs greater -- a greater degree of suspicion to conduct a strip search than to conduct an ordinary backpack search. This search violated the clearly established point that in order to conduct an intrusive search of one's body, the searching official needs to at least reasonably believe that the object is located underneath the undergarments. The Fourth Amendment does not account -- it does not countenance the rummaging on or around a 13-year-old girl's naked body."
Justice Stephen Breyer tried to get Wolf to elaborate on "how bad" such searches really were, noting that students often changed clothes at school for gym class, but that only inspired Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, to intervene. "It wasn't just that they were stripped to their underwear," she said incredulously, referring to Redding and another girl similarly searched at the school. "They were asked to shake their bra out, to stretch the top of their pants and shake that out."
While the justices were weighing constitutional rights and student safety, youth rights advocates had little trouble sorting out the issues. "Strip searching eighth graders is way over the line," said Amber Langston, eastern region outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "This kind of thing is a horrid example of the failure of our drug search policies in public schools. They said they were trying to protect the children, but who was protecting Savannah Redding from the humiliation inflicted on her by school officials?"
Students deserve the same constitutional rights as anyone else, said youth sociologist and Youth Facts founder Michael Males. And school districts should be making better choices, he added.
"Students should only be detained or searched under the same rules applied to adults," Males said. "If authorities have probable cause to suspect illegal behavior that would satisfy standards of reasonable suspicion, they can detain and search suspects. School strip searches require a very high level of probable cause, yet they typically seem based on gossip."
Males called the Redding case "particularly bizarre," noting that it only involved Ibuprofen. "School officials didn't seem interested in searching lockers, desks, or anywhere except inside the girl's underwear," he noted. "These kinds of traumatic cases are, again, why I keep arguing against raising hysteria about teenage drug use."
"Adults inspecting children's private parts is something we should be very wary of," said SSDP's Langston. "This was all over prescription-strength Ibuprofen, there was no evidence Savannah even had it except for the word of another student who was in trouble herself. If the Supreme Court allows this to stand, we will have given too much power to school officials to conduct such searches."
It's not just students but the school districts themselves that suffer from overbroad search policies, Males said. "These types of school searches have wound up costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in legal costs and, to my knowledge, virtually never find anything, which raises questions of why administrators are allocating scarce education resources to them."
The Supreme Court will decide the case later this summer. All indications are it will reverse the appeals court and uphold this expansion of school administrators' authority to do "whatever it takes" to protect students from drugs.