The U.S. Supreme Court voted last week to hear the case of Safford v. Redding.
Savana Redding, 13, was an eighth-grader at Safford Middle School when Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson ordered her out of math class and into his office to investigate whether she’d violated the school’s “zero tolerance” drug policy, which prohibits even over-the-counter medication.
Officials had found another student with Savana’s school planner and some ibuprofen pills. That “frightened” student claimed Savana had given her the pills. Savana denied it. After a search of her pockets and backpack yielded nothing incriminatory, Wilson ordered his administrative assistant and a school nurse to force the girl to disrobe.
The girl stood in her undergarments while two females searched her clothes. She was ordered to partially remove her bra, exposing her breasts, and finally told to shake out the crotch of her underpants.
The Constitution protects against “unreasonable searches,” and the court in 1985 made clear that protection extended to public school students — though school officials were advised by the court, in somewhat of a contradiction, that they could search students, their backpacks or their lockers whenever there was reason to suspect they had drugs or had violated other school rules.
Nonetheless, “It offends both common sense and the Constitution to undertake such an excessive, traumatizing search based on nothing more than an uncorroborated accusation of ibuprofen possession,” argued Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a 6-5 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, finding the principal could be held liable for “a grossly intrusive search of a middle school girl to locate pills with the potency of two over-the-counter Advil capsules. …
“Common sense informs us that directing a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen, an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one, and which could have been handled by keeping her in the principal’s office until a parent arrived or simply sending her home, was excessively intrusive,” noted the majority.
Before the case could go further, the school district appealed to the Supreme Court.
A cynic might argue such experiences are good training for young people of Savana’s generation, “breaking them in” to the kind of police state already in force at America’s airports.
In fact, however, the courts have erred here only in implying that strip-searching a 13-year-old might be OK if school officials were looking for something a little more potent than ibuprofen. The presumption of innocence and the right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure would not evaporate even if the suspected “crime” involved a reefer or a pocket knife.
The assistant principal was way out of line, here — as were the members of the local school board who presumably empowered him with this “zero tolerance” zealotry.