Strip-searches of students in public schools are unconstitutional in all but narrow circumstances, the federal government told the U.S. Supreme Court in a brief in an important education case to be decided this term.
The U.S. brief in Safford Unified School District v. Redding (Case No. 08-479) largely takes the side of Savanna Redding, who was a 13-year-old middle school student in 2003 when she was stripped-searched by school officials looking for prescription-strength Ibuprofen pills. No drugs were found.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of the Safford school district in Arizona of a federal appeals court ruling that the strip-search was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, also held last year that the assistant principal who ordered the strip-search was not entitled to qualified immunity from personal liablity in the case.
The brief filed early this month by Acting U.S. Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler supports qualified immunity for the school official, saying that the state of the law about student strip-searches was unclear at the time.
But on the central question in the case, the United States opposes the school district.
“Strip searches are impermissible in the public schools unless [school] officials reasonably suspect not only that the student possesses contraband but also that it is hidden in a place that such a search will reveal,” said the brief, which was also signed by lawyers from the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The brief argues that the strip-search of Redding, in which the student had to stretch out her bra and panties and shake them in front of a school nurse, was not justified because school officials had no reason to believe Redding had hidden contraband drugs in her clothing.
The government argues that under the “reasonable suspicion” standard set forth for student searches in the 1985 Supreme Court case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., school officials may extend a search beyond the student’s outer pockets and other features of clothing only when “they are responding to the violation of a rule designed to prevent immediate risk to health or safety and they possess particularized suspicion that the contraband is hidden in a location that a strip search will reveal.”
The case is set for argument on April 21.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.