Supreme Court Takes Middle School Strip Search Caseby Doug Mataconis
More than a year ago, I wrote about an Arizona middle school student who was strip searched by school officials after being caught with Advil, a legal non-prescription, over-the-counter pain reliever, in her possession.
The strip-search case was brought by the mother of Savana Redding, who in 2003 was an eighth-grade student at a public middle school in Safford, Ariz. Another student, found with ibuprofen pills in violation of a strict school policy, said Savana had given them to her.
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. The pills that prompted the search had the potency of two over-the-counter Advil capsules.
A trial judge dismissed the parent’s case against the school officials, ruling that they were immune from suit. After a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision, the full appeals court agreed to a rehearing. By 6 to 5, a larger panel of the court reversed the decision, saying the suit could go forward against the assistant principal who had ordered the search.
“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,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the majority, quoting a decision in another case. “More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity.”
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, dissenting, said the case was in some ways “a close call,” given the “humiliation and degradation” Savana had endured. But, Judge Hawkins concluded, “I do not think it was unreasonable for school officials, acting in good faith, to conduct the search in an effort to obviate a potential threat to the health and safety of their students.”
“I would find this search constitutional,” he wrote, “and would certainly forgive the Safford officials’ mistake as reasonable.”
The more important question, though, is what business school officials had in conducting a strip search to begin with. Isn’t that something that should have been done by a police officer with a search warrant issued on probable cause ?