April 12, 2009 in Nation/World

Teen’s strip-search goes to high court

Robert Barnes Washington Post
 

Backdrop

A 1985 Supreme Court decision said school officials need to have only reasonable suspicions, rather than probable cause, to search individual students. That case involved the search of a purse, but the justices cautioned against a search “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

SAFFORD, Ariz. – April Redding was waiting in the parking lot of the middle school when she heard news she could hardly understand: Her 13-year-old daughter, Savana, had been strip-searched by school officials in a futile hunt for drugs.

It’s a story that amazes and enrages her still, more than six years later, though she has relived it many times since.

Savana Redding was forced to strip to her underwear in the school nurse’s office and expose her breasts and pubic area to prove she was not hiding pills – prescription-strength ibuprofen, equivalent to two Advils.

“I guess it’s the fact that they think they were not wrong, they’re not remorseful, never said they were sorry,” April Redding said this week, as she and Savana talked about the legal fight over that search, which has now reached the Supreme Court.

And even more: When, days later, the principal met with April Redding to discuss what had happened, she said he was dismissive of an event so humiliating that her daughter never returned to classes at Safford Middle School.

The lawsuit carries the potential for redefining the privacy rights of students and the responsibility of teachers and school officials charged with keeping drugs off their campuses.

Matthew Wright, the school system’s lawyer, said in a statement he regrets the news media’s “reflexive reaction” to the case and underscored the dilemma school officials face between privacy and protection.

“Unfortunately, this tension sometimes places school officials in the untenable position of either facing the threat of lawsuits for their attempts to enforce a drug-free policy or for their laxity in failing to interdict potentially harmful drugs,” he wrote.

To which Savana Redding’s lawyer, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, replied: “The school official here heard an accusation that Savana previously possessed ibuprofen at some unknown location at some unknown time and jumped to the conclusion that Savana was presently storing ibuprofen and that she was storing it against her genitalia.

“It should be self-evident that that search is wrong.”

But the federal judges who have reviewed the case have not been so sure.

The full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that the search violated Savana’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and that Vice Principal Kerry Wilson could be found personally liable for ordering the search.

Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw reached back to a previous court decision for the quote that has come to define the case: “It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a thirteen-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude.”

On the other hand, it apparently stumped other constitutional scholars. The first judge who heard the Reddings’ case agreed with the school system that the search was justified because of accusations that school officials had heard about Savana. He threw out the suit. A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld that decision.

And while eight judges on the circuit eventually ruled the search was unconstitutional, several of the judges said Wilson could not have been expected to navigate the shifting legal standards for when such searches are allowed.

“Searches are often fruitless, and students’ motives are often benign, but teachers, unlike courts, do not act with the benefit of hindsight,” wrote Judge Michael Daly Hawkins.

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