SCOTUS Returns to Sanity in School Strip Search Caseby Stephen Littau
It seems that most of the time the U.S. Supreme Court is divided 5-4 on what should be very basic Constitutional principles (such was the case I wrote about in my most recent post). But once in awhile, SCOTUS does the unthinkable and actually upholds the Constitution. In Safford Unified School District #1 et. al. v. Redding, the court ruled 8-1 that the school district had violated then 13 year-old Savana Redding’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.
“Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution,” Justice David Souter wrote for the court majority.
The school’s policy prohibits the use, possession or sale of any drug on school grounds, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. A week before the search, a student became sick after taking pills from a classmate and said certain students were bringing drugs to school.
Following an assistant principal’s orders, a school nurse had Redding remove her clothes, move her bra to the side and pull her underwear out, exposing her breasts and pelvic area, to see if she was hiding any ibuprofen pills.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the part of the ruling that Redding’s privacy rights had been violated.
Thomas said the ruling “grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge.”
While the court agreed that the school district violated Redding’s privacy rights, only Justices Ginsburg and Stevens believed the school administrators should be held liable; the remaining Justices believed that prior to this ruling, the law had not been clearly established.
The ACLU attorney Adam Wolf who represented Redding was also quoted in the article saying: “Today’s ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones. Savana … is pleased that other students will not have to go through the trauma that she experienced.”
I think we sometimes forget that public school teachers and administrators are actually agents of the government. At times, schools have become “constitutional dead zones” but we should always remember that government agents of all kinds should be expected to respect legitimate rights of students. If the school administrators had good reason to believe that Redding had contraband, they could apply for a search warrant and allow the proper authorities to conduct the search.