Before the U.S. Supreme Court recesses for the summer, it will decide whether public school personnel should be given the authority to strip-search students. On its face, the case they will rule on appears to be about safety and security. It is about much more, however, and has the potential to do greater harm than good.
The justices will decide whether to endorse the strip-search of a 13-year-old 8th grade girl who was thought to be carrying and distributing prescription-strength ibuprofen (equivalent to two Advils). The school personnel who made the call to strip-search Savana Redding had a “reasonable suspicion” that she might be in possession of the drugs. They had been told this by Savana’s classmate, but no drugs were found on Savana. But the question of reasonable suspicion is not the issue here. The courts have consistently provided schools with this easy-to-reach standard so that they can work within wide boundaries of discretion when trying to keep students and schools safe.
But this search was not about safety. No one at the middle school she attended had alleged that Savana, or any other student, was in immediate or serious danger. Because of this lack of such danger, the intrusiveness of the search was more than just “a little extreme,” as suggested by Justice Stephen G. Breyer when the case was argued before the Supreme Court. The search was completely beyond the bounds of reasonableness.
School officials had the option of taking other steps without compromising the safety of students or the orderly running of the school. The police could have been called to handle the incident, or Savana could have been held in a room with an adult until her parent arrived. The school officials were under no pressure to act immediately.
To reiterate: This case is controversial because it did not involve the search for a weapon or a bomb, or anything else that might have forced administrators to act quickly to ensure student safety. Were such factors in play, the search of Savana would have been supported, regardless of its outcome. But the actions of school personnel have been called into question because the intrusiveness of the search was not in line with the potential harm to students or the school’s ability to maintain order.
This case is more properly about power—who has it and who does not. Endorsing school officials for the unnecessary strip-search of a 13-year-old honor student, one who did not represent a present and serious danger, would be sending the wrong signal to educators, students, and parents. Readers should understand that I say this as the principal of an alternative, urban school for at-risk youths. I frequently search students when I have a reasonable suspicion that they might be carrying drugs, weapons, or other contraband. In 20 years, I have never felt myself to be limited in my ability to protect my school community.
In schools, our greatest protection is having constructive relationships with students and parents, and it is exactly such relationships that will be jeopardized by a Supreme Court ruling that says, “We have the right to strip-search you, pretty much whenever we want.” Schools are communities in which adults have virtually all the power. As long as the adults are behaving reasonably, students and parents have to behave as directed by school personnel. But the real authority that exists in good schools comes from a sense of balance exhibited by the principal and staff members in their exercise of power.
In a very real sense, there is a social contract within schools that serves as a foundation of trust between students, parents, and school officials. It is precisely this social contract, this delicate balance, that will be jeopardized if the justices side with the school in this case.
What a shame this would be, coming just as we may be on the cusp of real and serious reform in our schools. At a time when we are trying to serve all children by making schools welcoming and inviting to all families, administrators would be perceived as pulling a move that gives us undue power. When the country is just getting over the trauma of molestation by church officials, we would be opening the door to place students and teachers in all kinds of questionable situations. Do we think there are no potentially dangerous adults in administrative positions in our public schools, individuals who might seek to take advantage of such authority?
Some final points. This is not an issue that should be seen as liberal or conservative. It is about schools, and the kind of authority that adults need to maintain an atmosphere for learning. It is also worth noting that Savana Redding never returned to her middle school after this incident occurred, and ended up dropping out. Anyone who has dealt with sensitive adolescents would not regard Savana’s subsequent actions as unusual. Finally, in many of our most challenging urban schools, there are already gaps of understanding and perception between families and the schools, created by race, culture, and class. We do not need to add the perception of arbitrary use of power to the mix.
As an educator whose first priority is safety, I do not see approval of strip-searches as making my school safer. This case is not about security. Justices of the Supreme Court: Please do not give us this power.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Problem With Strip-Searches