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Strip searches at school: Discipline gone too far?

Supreme Court will hear case from 2003 about Safford girl

SAFFORD – Eighth-grader Savana Redding was scared and confused when an assistant principal searching for drugs ordered her out of math class, searched her backpack and then instructed an administrative aide and school nurse to conduct a strip search.

“I went into the nurse’s office and kept following what they asked me to do,” Savana, now 19, recalled of the incident six years ago that she said still leaves her shaken and humiliated. “I thought, ‘What could I be in trouble for?’ ”

That morning, another student had been caught with prescription-strength ibuprofen and had told the assistant principal, Kerry Wilson, that she’d gotten the pills from Savana. The nurse and administrative assistant, both women, were alone with Savana in the nurse’s office when they asked the girl to take off her shoes and socks, then her shirt and pants. The two women then asked Savana to pull open her bra and panties so they could see whether she was hiding any pills. None was found.

Drug searches, along with drug tests for students in athletics and other extracurricular activities, have become common in schools across the nation. But the search of Savana at Safford Middle School on Oct. 8, 2003, ignited a legal dispute that has landed before the U.S. Supreme Court – and could transform the landscape of drug searches in public schools.

Tuesday, the nine justices will hear Safford officials’ appeal of a lower court decision that said the administrators violated Savana’s constitutional rights and should be held financially responsible.

Attorneys for the Safford school district, about 80 miles east of Tucson in the Pinaleno Mountains, portray the school as “on the front lines of a decadeslong war against drug abuse among students” and defend the search of Savana as necessary.

They echo the concerns of administrator groups nationwide who say increasingly younger students are experimenting with drugs and are abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

They cite a 2006 Office of National Drug Control Policy report that said more than 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs in 2005 and youths ages 12 to 17 abused prescription drugs more than any other illicit drug except marijuana.

If the Supreme Court upholds the search, it will give administrators broad discretion on drug searches across the board.

“If they decide that this was justified, then anything goes,” said Sarah Redfield, a Franklin Pierce Law Center professor who follows court rulings on student searches.

Calling the ibuprofen a “relatively harmless medication,” Redfield said that “this was not a search for a weapon or potential threat. If they do say you can do this one, I can’t imagine what search won’t be allowed.”

Yet, if the court strikes it down and also holds school administrators financially responsible, as Savana Redding and her mother want, the decision could produce a new wariness among administrators.

Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, which is siding with the Safford officials, said if the high court holds district officials liable it will restrain administrators who need flexibility to deal with problems.

“I don’t think it (a strip search) is the preferred method,” Negron said, “but it may be in certain circumstances.”

The case, coming to the justices a day after the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, occurs in a broader context of schools trying to balance student freedom with discipline. In some cases, administrators are resorting to “zero-tolerance” rules that impose strict punishments for a variety of transgressions.

“After Columbine, schools became more rigid,” Redfield said. “But we did have some backlash against zero-tolerance policies, and there are now less absolute policies in schools.”

The next phase of student searches and discipline could depend in part on how the court rules in Safford Unified School District v. Redding.

Defining students’ rights

In 1985, the Supreme Court for the first time specifically applied the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches to students, in a case involving a New Jersey freshman whose purse was searched after she was caught smoking in a bathroom.

The justices upheld the search, yet emphasized that students have legitimate expectations of privacy and judges should balance schools’ interest in enforcing rules to protect all students with individual students’ privacy rights.

Since then, the court has heard few challenges to student searches. Cases that have come before the justices during the past two decades have involved general random searches for drugs, not situations in which individuals were targeted.

In 1995 and 2002 rulings, the Supreme Court upheld drug testing of urine – considered a type of “search” – for students involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities.

In those cases, the justices in the majority emphasized the importance of deterring student drug use.

Safford officials take that tack in their arguments against April Redding, who sued on behalf of her daughter.

When the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 6-5 against the Safford officials, it expressed skepticism about the student tip that Savana had pills and said: “At minimum, Assistant Principal Wilson should have conducted additional investigation to corroborate (the) ‘tip’ before directing Savana into the nurse’s office for disrobing.”

Now that her case has become so public, Savana has heard from hundreds of people, mostly students expressing support. She is taking some classes at a community college and trying her hand at creative writing. After the strip search, Savana never returned to Safford Middle School. She transferred to other schools but never obtained her high school degree.

She hopes to pass a GED test and become a counselor.

As for the search in the nurse’s office, she often wonders whether she should have protested rather than follow the school officials’ orders.

Said Savana: “I think about it every day.”

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