Law & Courts

Supreme Court Limits Strip-Searches of Students

June 25, 2009 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

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 today.

The ruling on strip-searches of students clarifies the 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.

U.S. Supreme Court: The 2008-09 Term:
Progress and Problems
Supreme Court Limits Strip-Searches of Students
U.S. Supreme Court: The 2008-09 Term (Overview)
Supreme Court Orders Fresh Look at Arizona ELL Case
Supreme Court Backs Reimbursement for Private Tuition

All the members of the court except Justice Clarence Thomas agreed that the strip-search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment protections.

Separately, however, 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 has 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 lawyers for the federal government.

Francisco 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.

“The court recognized that the law in this area was unsettled,” he said. “And there seems to be a recognition in the court’s opinion that the educators were acting in good faith.”

As to the constitutional question, Mr. Negron said: “We’re happy that the court has now clarified sort of the outer boundary of when a search is permissible.” He noted that the court’s approach seems to consider both the dangerousness of the contraband in question as well as there being reasonable suspicion that it would be discovered in a student’s undergarments.

For its part, Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said he was pleased to see the court’s decision on the constitutional issue, but disappointed on the question of immunity for educators.

“Today’s ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones,” he said in a press release. “While we are disappointed with the court’s conclusion that the law was not clear before today and therefore school officials were not found liable, at least other students will not have to go through what [student] Savana [Redding] experienced.”

Search for Drugs

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, an honors student, 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. (“School Strip-Search Case Heads to Supreme Court,” April 14, 2009.)

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, including the nurse, looked on.

“Because the suspected facts pointing to Savanna did not indicate that the drugs presented a danger to students or were concealed in her underwear, [the school’s assistant principal] did not have sufficient suspicion to warrant extending the search to the point of making Savana pull out her underwear,” Justice Souter wrote for the majority.

Justice Souter also wrote that the three school officials involved in the search are protected from liability by qualified immunity because “clearly established law did not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.”

He added: “The intrusiveness of the strip-search here cannot ... be seen as justifiably related to the circumstances, but lower court cases viewing school strip-searches differently are numerous enough, with well-reasoned majority and dissenting opinions, to counsel doubt about the clarity with which the right was previously stated.”

But Justice John Paul Stevens disputed that reasoning in his opinion.

"[T]he clarity of a well-established right should not depend on whether jurists have misread our precedents,” he said.

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 said they had acted “contrary to all reason and common sense.”

A panel of the appeals court ruled 8-3 on the constitutional issue. Also, by a vote of 6-5, the appeals court held that the assistant principal who had ordered the strip-search was not entitled to “qualified immunity” from liability in the lawsuit.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Appeals Court Weighs Idaho Law Barring Transgender Female Students From Girls' Sports
The three-judge federal court panel reviews a lower-court ruling that blocked the controversial statute and said it was likely unconstitutional.
4 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Federal Appeals Court Backs Socioeconomic-Based Admissions Plan for Boston 'Exam Schools'
The court denies an injunction to block the plan for next year and says considering family income in admissions is likely constitutional.
3 min read
Image shows lady justice standing before an open law book and gavel.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court Wary About Extending School Authority Over Student Internet Speech
In arguments, the justices looked for a narrow way to decide a case about the discipline of a cheerleader over a profane Snapchat message.
7 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.
Members of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the court on April 23. The justices heard arguments Wednesday in a major case on student speech.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court to Weigh When School Board Censure of a Member Violates the First Amendment
The justices will decide an issue that has become more salient as a few board members rant inappropriately on social media.
5 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
iStock/Getty