Supreme Court Takes Strip Search Case

An 8th grade student in Safford, Arizona, found in possession of two prescription-strength ibuprofen pills, told school officials she got them from another student, Savana Redding.

School officials searched Savana’s belongings, made her strip to her bra and underwear, and ordered her, in the words of an appeals court, “to pull her bra out to the side and shake it” and “pull out her underwear at the crotch and shake it.” No pills were found.

Strip searching a student to recover a relatively benign medication on the strength of an uncorroborated accusation is outrageous, and seems like an obvious constitutional violation. When Savana's parents sued, however, school officials claimed they were immune from suit because students have no constitutional right not to be strip searched when they are accused of violating school policy. The Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the school's position (which the Ninth Circuit rejected [pdf]) is correct. [more ...]

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court might decide that its precedent does not "clearly establish" that strip searches of students are unreasonable under the circumstances that existed in Savana's case, and that the school officials are therefore entitled to qualified immunity from suit. If it takes that route, it might even duck the central question: whether Savana's right to be free from an unreasonable search was violated. That's one of the problems of the Supreme Court's invention of qualified immunity: it inhibits the natural development of the law.

Qualified immunity is supposed to shield public officials from lawsuits when the law is ambiguous so that they can discharge their responsibilities fearlessly (even if stupidly, as in Savana's case). No reasonable public official should think the Constitution permits a strip search of a student for an item that isn't dangerous based on such flimsy information. The Ninth Circuit decision quotes a Seventh Circuit decision that nails that point:

“It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a thirteen year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude. More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity.”

The school officials who strip searched Savana deserve no immunity. They should face a jury, and they should feel lucky it isn't a criminal jury.

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    That makes me furious. I instructed my (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Teresa on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:04:23 AM EST
    step-daughter a long time ago to run screaming if they ever try to do that to her. I would go to jail before I would allow it.

    What do you think the reasoning is for the SC to hear this case after the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the school's actions? Does this mean they don't necessarily agree or is it just because it needs to be decided once and for all? Something similar happened here a while back and I'm really anxious to hear what they say.

    Learning how to listen to "The Man" (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by ricosuave on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 08:27:25 AM EST
    For a dozen years of our early lives in America, school is "The Man."  It is the main bit of authority we live under and our relationship with that authority trains us for our later relationship with the government at large.  We have, for years, imbued our kids with the idea that they have a "permanent record" which will haunt them forever if they screw up.  We have taught them that it is OK for the body in authority to require patriotic loyalty oaths on a daily or weekly basis, that they must show the proper levels of "spirit" and have clearly shown them where our priorities are (think about your cracked and peeling cafeteria tables and the shiny new football uniforms).  

    It is an environment where you are forced to dress a certain way (or the same as everyone), you can't chew gum, you are electronically searched as you enter every day, and your personal storage spaces are subject to random or unannounced searches.  (In my public school in the 80's, I was physically beaten--aka paddled--twice for being late to class too many times, though they have since discontinued that practice.  My parents were never notified that this was done to me, and their permission was never explicitly sought.)  If I didn't tell you it was kids at a school, you would think it was North Korea I was talking about.

    I am both appalled and unsurprised by this story.  It is horrible how we treat our kids, and even worse what we are teaching them about the limits of what government is allowed to do with them.  No wonder so many people are willing to accept wiretapping, black-bag searches, detentions without access to the courts, and random drug testing at work in America today.  That's what we teach them to accept.

    zeitgeist (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by nellre on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 10:43:04 AM EST
    We live in an era where human rights takes a back seat to authoritarian muscle flexing.
    Accountability got thrown back there too.
    That back seat is really crowded.

    It saddens me that so many human being lack the (I guess not so common) decency to respect their fellows.

    Interesting (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by blogtopus on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 01:20:53 PM EST
    So because they are violating school code / rules, they have no constitutional rights at all? So this means, technically, ANYTHING can be done to them, if they, say, violate dress code.

    "Daddy, the principal raped me."

    "What, AGAIN?"

    "Yeah. (sobbing) I was caught passing a note in class!!"

    Hyperbole, yes, but still true.

    Is is jut me... (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by Dadler on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 01:52:55 PM EST
    ...or does it seem, beyond the egregious and unwarranted violation of rights and decency here, that a little prurient motivation is at work in anyone who wants to strip search a 13 year old girl because of contraband in the form of a couple of extra strength Advil?

    ridiculous (5.00 / 1) (#24)
    by paintmydream on Mon Jan 19, 2009 at 08:51:33 PM EST
    To make a thirteen year old girl strip down to her underwear over some ibuprophen that she may not even have, is ridiculous, especially if done by administrators. If they were that suspicious and that worried, the police should have been called to go through proper procedure of a search. The parents should have been notified. Children have constitutional rights, too, even at school. School is a place where a child should feel safe, not as a place their rights will be violated. She should be protected under the fourth amendment. A strip search is any removal of clothing, no matter how much or little is removed.

    Constitutionality of this case: (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by EGD2009 on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 03:03:07 PM EST
    This case was in violation of the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution, in addition to the Constitution itself. The direct quote that, "All men are created equal" was completely lost on this case. During the strip search each of the involved parties were given a different treatment. Meaning, Marissa was asked:  (1) remove her shoes and socks, (2) lift up her shirt and pull out her bra band, and (3) take off her pants and pull out the elastic of her underwear. Marissa complied with each request. The search of Marissa's person and clothing did not yield any more pills, and as soon as the search was over, Romero returned Marissa's clothes and permitted her to get dressed. While Redding At the time of the search, was wearing "stretch pants without pockets and a T-shirt without pockets." Nurse Romero asked Redding to: (1) remove her jacket, shoes, and socks, (2) remove her pants and shirt, (3) pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, exposing her breasts, and (4) pull her underwear out at the crotch and shake it, exposing her pelvic area. The search did not produce any pills. Immediately after it had concluded, Defendants returned Redding's clothes and allowed her to get dressed. At no point during the search did Romero touch Redding. However, prior to the search, no attempt was made to contact Redding's mother, which is not legal because Redding was a minor. In order for the strip search to be legitimate the school must have obtained a court order, gotten parental consent, or shown it was an emergency circumstance (see 2002 case in United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, involving the rights of a minor, where these rights are specifically stated, Roe v. Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services) . This basic procedure was not followed, and thus the school was not within their rights to search Redding. The fact that the accused (Marissa and Savana) were treated differently violates the fundamental premise in the United States Constitution, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." By the school conducting two varying degrees of searches Ms. Redding was deprived of her rights, without substantiated evidence, and based solely on the word of her piers and preconceived notions about Ms. Redding's character and thus the administration of the Safford Middle School led themselves to believe the blasphemy about Savanna's involvement with the alleged drugs she was in possession of.  In terms of illegal activity by Savana, there was no concrete evidence that she was ever involved. In addition, she was not specifically implicated in the previous cases, and thus should've been treated as any other student would have been treated. The 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution gives the accused the "presumption of innocence," meaning they are considered innocent until proven guilty.  However, because of the school Administration's bias toward her, she was not treated as such. The Vice Principal, Wilson, was so sure she was involved and in possession of the contraband, that Redding was not treated as an innocent, but instead a criminal, who they whole-heartedly believed was guilty before the search was even conducted. With the aforementioned evidence against the Defendants:  Kerry Wilson (Vice-Principal), Helen Romero (Nurse who conducted the searches), Peggy Schwallier (Witness to the searches), and the Safford Unified School District, I conclude that the search of Ms. Savana Redding was unconstitutional, unfair, and improperly conducted, and thus the defendants are guilty of stripping this girl of more than her dignity but her rights as an American Citizen. 

    If the supreme court doesn't rule in favor of Ms. Redding, I have lost faith in the Judicial system, in that they are supposed to protect and interpret the Constitution. With so many blaring violations, I don't know how they could rule against Savana. Not to mention the obvious moral issues involving a 13 year old girl.

    It is precisely this type of abuse of power (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by Inspector Gadget on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 03:14:32 PM EST
    used in our schools that causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand up when people refer to them as "professionals" and think they need to be treated with greater respect.

    Schools step way over their line of authority when they attempt to do the job of law enforcement. A decent school superintendent has policies that clearly identify what issues can be handled in school and what requires the principal to call 911.

    Oh the stories most parents can tell these days of things that happen in schools....at the hands of the teachers and administrators.

    actually, it should be (3.50 / 4) (#1)
    by cpinva on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:02:21 AM EST
    criminal charges, for sexual abuse of a minor.

    they should also be required to register on the state's sex offender list.

    on top of that, the father of this girl should be allowed 5 minutes alone with them, in a locked room. whatever's left can then be prosecuted.

    Ah... (none / 0) (#12)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 10:41:53 AM EST
    we have another person who is so angered by the actions of others that he is willing to let someone torture the offenders.....

    right not to be searched (none / 0) (#3)
    by diogenes on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:16:58 AM EST
    The constitutional right is meant to not allow evidence to be obtained without a proper warrant, not to allow large cash payout jackpots if it is violated.
    What exactly are the purported damages here in a civil suit, anyway?  Sounds like a nuisance suit designed to shake down the district into a settlement.  The local taxpayers are the real victims in this case.
    Out of curiosity, if there were a report that this girl were carrying oxycontins around the school, would people here support a strip search or let it ride on the theory that students who are smart enough to hide contraband in their bras shouldn't be searched even if it isn't ibuprofen.

    So you think it's ok for school officials (5.00 / 5) (#5)
    by nycstray on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:38:36 AM EST
    to strip search kids because they think they may have something in their under garments? Seems  to me, you would need more than that (and the words of another child) I don't give a sh!t what they think the kid has. Parent notification and law enforcement should happen at least. What's wrong with just holding the child in the office under supervision until everyone is notified and the child's rights are protected? It's not like the drugs are going to get up and walk out of her bra.

    The real victim? (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by kdog on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 08:51:15 AM EST
    C'mpn bro...the victim is that young girl who had her body violated.

    Maybe if the district is held accountable for their wrong-doing via civil suit, the people of the district will get off their arse and hire some competent administrators who don't strip search little girls over a mere accusation of contraband ibuprofen...sh*t even oxycontin.  

    All the school should do upon hearing an accusation is notify the parents.


    Of course (none / 0) (#14)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 10:45:20 AM EST
    The problem is that school "officials" seem to lead the parade in doing dumb things.

    Now, what should be the punishment for a student having proscribed substances at school?


    diogenes, (none / 0) (#6)
    by cpinva on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 05:10:34 AM EST
    that's among the stupidest comments you've made. last time i checked, the constitution doesn't stop at the school house door. of course, you know that already, so did the school, and so does the USSC.

    constitution (none / 0) (#21)
    by diogenes on Sun Jan 18, 2009 at 02:03:05 PM EST
    So if it was a girl that reported that another had oxycontins around the school it would be OK for the principal to call the cops who, if they had probable cause, would search the person.  Fine, if you'd rather have more cops around the school.  Reminds me of a story I read of a district where a 5 year old was out of control and the school was so scared to touch her that they called the cops to take her away.

    Wow. It always blows my mind what (none / 0) (#4)
    by nycstray on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 12:31:46 AM EST
    people believe is okay. Have school officials always had the same Public Official blanket as law enforcement? It seems to me, if you feel a student needs to be strip searched, you need law enforcement (and perhaps lawyers!).

    Maybe they need.. (none / 0) (#9)
    by kdog on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 08:53:42 AM EST
    a new line of work outside of education...thats what I think.  

    Good point (none / 0) (#15)
    by nycstray on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 11:33:30 AM EST
    Totally agree. I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that anyone would think this was okay.

    An extended version of (none / 0) (#10)
    by oldpro on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 08:57:00 AM EST
    "school authority" using and abusing police powers exists on public college and university campuses and the military academies, often to the detriment of law enforcement and justice for crime victims.

    The campus cops are employed to 'keep it quiet' about the thefts, rapes and other violence on campus.  Campus PR is what matters.

    I've never understood how this came to pass and why students and parents stand for it.

    Why is this going to SC? (none / 0) (#11)
    by NealB on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 10:35:57 AM EST
    I read through more details of the case here.

    As suggested in a post above: Why weren't Safford police contacted to arrest the school officials involved, and why didn't the Safford DA seek indictments?

    for what (none / 0) (#23)
    by diogenes on Sun Jan 18, 2009 at 02:07:55 PM EST
    Arrest the school officials on what charge, exactly?

    I read the linked opinion. (none / 0) (#18)
    by wurman on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 03:13:31 PM EST
    It appears to me as if the US Supreme Court may have agreed to hear this case because of the discussion(s) of what may constitute a "strip search" & the dissenting opinion(s) about that specific topic.

    From my reading, it seems that circuit courts have dealt with varying interpretations as to how much clothing must be removed in order to reach a clear definition of "strip search."  Apparently, however, the Supremes have not.

    From the link (PDF):

    The Eleventh Circuit has considered a police officer's direction for someone to strip down to their underwear to be a "strip search."

    Likewise, the Fourth Circuit understands a search of an adult arrestee in his boxer shorts to be a strip search.

    The First Circuit "recognize[s] that a strip search may occur even when an inmate is not fully disrobed."

    Statutes defining a strip search in several states confirm our understanding of the term "strip search." California, for instance, defines the term as "requir[ing] a person to remove or arrange some or all of his or her clothing so as to permit a visual inspection of the underclothing, breasts, buttocks, or genitalia of such person."

    Perhaps the following is the key comment & may lead to some form of national standard:

    The Fourth Circuit has recognized that this definition of a strip search is "uniform" throughout the Union.
    See Amaechi, 237 F.3d at 365 n.15.
    [Quotations cherry-picked by me without references.]

    Where did those officials (none / 0) (#19)
    by weltec2 on Sat Jan 17, 2009 at 08:46:36 PM EST
    go to college?! At the very least, they should have their credentials revoked. Traumatizing a child in that way... that's just intolerable.

    "trauma" (none / 0) (#22)
    by diogenes on Sun Jan 18, 2009 at 02:05:46 PM EST
    Being strip searched by someone of your own sex is not trauma with a capital T.  It may be unpleasant, degrading, or infuriating.

    We've Been Down This Road Before (none / 0) (#20)
    by JoeJP on Sun Jan 18, 2009 at 09:27:46 AM EST
    In the words of Justice Stevens in NJ v. T.L.O.:

    One thing is clear under any standard -- the shocking strip searches that are described in some cases have no place in the schoolhouse. See Doe v. Renfrow, 631 F.2d 91, 92-93 (CA7 1980) ("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 of some magnitude"),

    Not too obvious, apparently, since Stevens also cites Justice Brennan's dissent to denial of cert, a dissent that ended "Schools cannot expect their students to learn the lessons of good citizenship when the school authorities themselves disregard the fundamental principles underpinning our constitutional freedoms."

    When presidents don't think the such freedoms are too important, this is not too surprising.

    A violation of Constitution and humanity (none / 0) (#27)
    by PrMom on Wed Mar 25, 2009 at 06:17:13 AM EST
    I agree with the poster who has instructed his daughter to run screaming if school officials ever tried anything like this. Every thinking citizen, any concerned parent ought to be outraged. We're teaching our children to be submissive drones who do not know and will not demand their rights. It is equally outrageous that the school nurse would agree to violate a child this way. Where was the community? Why weren't they at the next school board meeting, at every school board meeting, until this principle was out, and a clear, reasonable policy established? It isn't just the principal who has violated this girl and her rights; he was aided by the school board and a passive community. I fear that the passive, apathetic community may be the greater threat to libery.