Search and Seizure: Strip Search of School Girl for Ibuprofen Went Too Far, Federal Appeals Court Says

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #543)
Politics & Advocacy

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."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

So how many days incarceration did Safford Middle School Principal Kerry Wilson recieve for this unconstitutional crime against a minor?

If I were this poor girls parent I would be prone to rip Kerry Wilsons' head off and sew it to her ass for the remainder of the school year... where it apparently belongs!

Apparently this prick, Justice Michael Daly Hawkins, thinks strip searches are, or should be, standard operating procedure for our youngest citizens while in the care of their federal gov't at a public school.

With a statement like: "We should resist using our independent judgment to determine what infractions are so harmful..." makes you wonder how this justice got a law license let alone a judgeship. Guess we know were he stands on judicial review... better to trust god & gov't... they know best?

What a delusional dipshit!

Billy B. Blunt
Tacoma, WA

Fri, 07/18/2008 - 3:30pm Permalink
rita (not verified)

Last year, in Prescott, Arizona, a high school student was arrested for the possession of an "empty bottle of Oxycontin." Further "investigation" revealed a text message from another student about taking prescription-stregnth Ibuprofen. Both boys were charged with drug felonies.

If the cops are this anal about ibuprofen and empty pill bottles, imagine the nightmare of prescription marijuana!

Do you really want these paranoids in charge of your life?

Fri, 07/18/2008 - 10:50pm Permalink
Apocalypse (not verified)

If just one judge had gone the other way, it would have been a different ruling. What a long, sad road we have traveled in 232 years. Strip-searching 13 year olds for ibuprofen cannot possibly be what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the U.S. Constitution! When I was a child, I was proud to be an American and I thought this was the greatest country in the world. Now I know better. Today I'm ashamed to be an American.

Sat, 07/19/2008 - 2:26pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Compelling a minor to strip and be searched prior to an arrest ought to at least be considered a form of child sexual abuse. That an employee of a public school should believe for a moment that subjecting a child to such a traumatic invasion of privacy is acceptable or appropriate and that it is conceivably considered legal leaves me dumbfounded.

Sat, 07/19/2008 - 5:02pm Permalink
Malkavian (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

In any other setting this would have been called rape or some other kind of sexual molestation. Then to think that the state also puts people in jail where they run the risk of literal rape and the "state sanctioned" rapes that go under the name of body cavity searches.

Not all people wish to explore their (homo)sexuality by being groped inside their behinds by an obviously mentally disturbed prison facility staff. In any other realm of justice the non-consensual penetration of the anus would be considered a crime.

What people are attracted to a job where they KNOW they will get the power to strip search and body cavity search people? Clearly they are doing so because they get sadistic pleasure from the domination/humiliation or because they are emotionally stunted creatures devoid of any empathy. I would be so much better if they did stuff like that in the bedroom with their wife.

To whom it might concern:

- if you derive pleasure from sexually humiliating other people you are into sadism and dominance, the middle two parts of the acronym BDSM and the Dominance is clearly the hardcore type that involves humiliation.

- if you feel no empathy for those you subject to these humiliating searches you are most likely born with a genetic deficiency. While you may not be able to cure your condition you might be able to get professional help that allows you to live with your condition without hurting other people.

Mon, 07/21/2008 - 8:53am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Unfortuneately schools tend to try and make/bend the rules as they see fit. If my bud's didn't know their constitutional rights they would have been screwed plenty of times.

Wed, 07/23/2008 - 4:01pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I subscribe to ThisIsTrue. Most stories are about stupid criminals.

However, this sad story is just one more example of Zero Tolerance, otherwise know as Zero Thought. This guy has a good blog on the subject, in general, and this case in particular.

One of the few effective "solutions" to the ZT problem is demanding the school board to show why the principal should get their high salary. It is supposed to be because they need to make the hard decisions. ZT negates the need for decisions, other than blindly following some policy, no matter how brain-damaged. If the principle will not earn her keep, her salary should reflect that fact and reduced.

And yes, it is sad that such an obvious violation should come down to a 5-4 decision.

Keep banging the rocks together.

abq, nm

Fri, 08/01/2008 - 10:06pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

This isn't about drugs at all. Who the hell thinks an assistant principal, with no call to the actual authorities, has the authority to order a strip search at all. How this person can be considered an appropriate choice for a school administrator is beyond me. If he wanted a search conducted he should have called in an police officer. This was a blatant abuse of his power over a minor. This went beyond unconstitutional and into the realm of criminal.

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 5:48pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 13 year-old girl! If my school said that i had to do that, I'd say that since I'm a minor - I have the right to have a parent with me. And then I wouldn't talk to them until my parents were there!

Tue, 01/27/2009 - 5:09pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Right now, if they would have done that to my daughter, who is 16 now, I would be sitting in prison for beating the crap out of the principal! He'd be lucky to be paralyzed for life.

Tue, 02/17/2009 - 8:43am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher, I've seen students who I'd wager had some form of illegal drugs on them. I've written up students quite a number of times. As a principle, all you see in the office are the "bad" kids. And a fair amount of the time, you get to see the "bad" parents that produced the kids. After a while, you can start to think all the kids are "bad." I'm not saying what happened here is right or fair. A strip search of a 13 year old is simply disgusting. But ask yourself this question: Would this even be a case if a bag of cocaine had slipped out of the girl's bra? I personally would not strip search a child, and certainly not for ibuprofen. But I also wouldn't hesitate to search her belongings, even if my only evidence is the word of another child. The school world can be that criminal these days. This is why the ruling was so close and why this case will more than likely be appealed. The current ruling is still to unclear; it leaves open the option for strip searching for "harder" drugs.

Wed, 03/25/2009 - 7:50am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If a parent searched a minor in that way they would likely be accused of sexual abuse or perversion at the least. What gives anyone the right to strip search a minor? The schools are not allowed to even give an aspirin to a child, but they can order the child to remove most of their clothing and expose themselves? Apparently the rights of the minor no longer exist once they enter the school. Do the parents retain any rights? Shouldn't the parent be called in? Where are these schools when it comes to protecting minors from bullying?

Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:43pm Permalink
why do you wan… (not verified)

this makes me so sick if they told me to strip my clothes of seriously i wouldve told them that they can kiss my ass...thats is sexual harrassment in EVERY WAY!!! thats horrible that this happened to this little girl...horrible..she mustve been so scared and confused i can just imagine if i were her parent i wouldve been so pissed off!!!

Wed, 07/08/2009 - 3:28am Permalink
antidrugmoveme… (not verified)

i am also a 13-year-old girl

reading what they did to her makes me sick

and the fact that it could have happened to me or my friends

this is america

and some are not so lucky to get a 6-5 even a case at all

and they sit on their thrones of money

"because they have never been a 13-year old girl" - RBG

Mon, 05/01/2023 - 1:17pm Permalink

Add new comment

Source URL: