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Strip-searched Safford student hopes for Supreme Court win

Even 5 1/2 years later, Savana Redding can’t believe she was strip-searched by school officials in pursuit of the equivalent of two Advils.

The 19-year-old hopes a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday will ease the pain she feels from an event in eighth grade that’s clouded much of her life and set strict guidelines for school administrators.

“I’m never going to be able to forget about this,” says Redding, a college freshman still living in her hometown of Safford in far eastern Arizona. “I’ll think about it constantly, but I don’t think it’ll be as big a burden.”

The nation’s highest court will hear arguments on whether Safford Middle School officials violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches. Among the questions to be resolved are whether there were reasonable grounds to believe Redding was hiding pills and, even if there were, whether the pills posed a public health threat serious enough to justify a strip search.

Even if the court finds the search was unconstitutional, it will have to decide whether school officials can be held financially liable — determining whether it should have been clear to them in October 2003 that the search was illegal.

“Strip searches of children produce trauma similar in kind and degree to sexual abuse,” said Adam Wolf, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Redding. “For Savana, she thinks about this event every day, has trust issues with her peers and adults … The search has radically altered her life.”

Initially, a federal magistrate dismissed the lawsuit Savana and her mother brought, and a federal appeals panel agreed 2-1 that the search didn’t violate her rights. But last July, a full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found otherwise.

“It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in the majority opinion. The court also said vice principal Kerry Wilson could be found personally liable.

The district appealed to the Supreme Court.

The search happened after a schoolmate who was found with prescription-strength ibuprofen pills accused Redding of giving them to her. The Safford Unified School District bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and Wilson took Savana, a 4.0 honor student, to his office to search her backpack.

Then, he ordered her to go with a secretary to the nurse’s office. “When they asked me to take off my shirt and pants, I was panicky, but I didn’t want them to know,” Redding said. “I just wanted to get out of there.”

They told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. She did not resist. “I’m one of those kids who does what they’re told,” Redding said.

No pills were found.

“Her mom was irate,” said Wolf. “She feels that her parental rights were taken away and that the school had no business executing the search on her child.”

In a statement, Matthew Wright, the school district’s attorney, declined interviews but suggested a “reflexive action” in media coverage stemming from “a superficial understanding of the facts.”

He wrote that school officials sometimes are “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.”

A 1985 Supreme Court decision that dealt with searching a student’s purse said school officials needed only reasonable suspicions, not probable cause. But the court also warned against a search that is “excessively intrusive…”

Traumatized, Redding left her school and graduated from another junior high.

She developed bleeding ulcers and dropped out of Safford High School because of unexcused absences. When the ulcers flared up, Redding had refused to see the nurse — the woman who had searched her.

She left an alternative school without graduating and says she’s now introverted and untrusting, has few friends and prefers staying home. But she’s back in school at Eastern Arizona College after passing an entrance exam despite not having a diploma, plans to major in psychology and wants to “help other people that are like me.”

She hopes the Supreme Court sets clear guidelines for how school administrators “should go about searches like this.”

Safford’s school officials “never apologized to me,” she said. “They think what they did was right.”

But Redding thinks she’ll have won however the court rules. “It’s made such a big ruckus in the media that people are going to know, and people won’t want this to happen in their schools,” she said.

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