Law & Courts

Strip-Search Case Clarifies Scope of School Officials’ Power, Liability

July 14, 2009 3 min read
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Public school officials violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a 13-year-old girl who was strip-searched for suspected drug possession, but are entitled to qualified immunity from legal action, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month.

The June 25 decision on strip-searches establishes a new standard for when such searches are permissible, but it does not prohibit them.

“Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion,” wrote Justice David H. Souter in an opinion joined by five other justices.

All but Justice Clarence Thomas agreed that the strip-search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment protections.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas said the ruling represents a “deep intrusion into the administration of public schools.”

Separately, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed opinions that, while agreeing on the Fourth Amendment question, challenged the decision to grant protection from legal liability to the school official who ordered it.

The case attracted national media attention, as well as friend-of-the court briefs from national education groups, civil liberties advocates, and the Obama administration. The final ruling is largely in keeping with the stance put forward by the federal government.

See Also

For more information on the 2008-09 term, read U.S. Supreme Court: Progress and Problems.

“Today’s ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones,” Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said in a June 29 news release. He was disappointed on the question of immunity for educators, however.

Francisco M. Negron, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., which filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of Arizona’s Safford school district, praised the decision on ensuring qualified immunity for school officials. But he expressed concern about the constitutional question, suggesting the ruling would make it more difficult to ensure a safe environment on campus.

“I don’t think the opinion is at all clear on how this new standard will play out,” he said, highlighting as one concern the ruling’s call for administrators to consider the dangerousness of a substance when conducting a strip-search. “There is very little guidance in the opinion about how a nonmedical professional makes that determination,” he said.

Going Too Far

At issue in Safford Unified School District v. Redding (Case No. 08-479) was the search of 8th grader Savana Redding by school personnel at an Arizona middle school. The search took place amid suspicion that Ms. Redding possessed prescription-strength ibuprofen tablets, a violation of the school’s anti-drug policy. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug used to relieve pain and fever.

No such pills were found on Ms. Redding, who, at school officials’ request, stripped down to her undergarments in the school nurse’s office. She pulled away her underpants and bra from her body and shook them as two female personnel looked on.The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled last July that school officials had violated Ms. Redding’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The appeals court also held that the assistant principal who had ordered the strip-search was not entitled to “qualified immunity” from liability in the lawsuit.

Although the Supreme Court majority said the school officials were on solid ground in searching Ms. Redding’s backpack and outer garments, they went too far when she was strip-searched.

“In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear,” Justice Souter wrote for the majority.

Mr. Negron argues that it’s not clear from the ruling whether the new standard requires both that the contraband be considered dangerous and that school officials have reason to suspect it’s hidden in a student’s undergarments, or that simply one or the other factor would be enough.

But Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., reads the ruling as indicating that either dangerousness or the suspicion that the contraband is hidden in the underwear would suffice.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas labels the standard “vague and amorphous” and says it “grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that [school] officials take to maintain discipline ... and ensure the health and safety of students.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Strip-Search Case Clarifies Scope of School Officials’ Power, Liability

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