Schools may not strip-search students for drugs based on an unverified tip, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
Overturning two other rulings, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said an assistant principal at an Arizona middle school violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old by ordering her to be strip-searched. He thought the honor student had prescription-strength ibuprofen; she did not.
The 6-5 ruling by the San Francisco-based court reinstated a lawsuit that a divided three-judge circuit panel threw out last year. The lawsuit was brought by the parents of Savana Redding, who was an eighth-grader at Safford Middle School in southeastern Arizona when the assistant principal ordered her out of math class and into his office to investigate whether she had violated a school policy that prohibited students from bringing medication -- even over-the-counter medication -- to school.
Another student had Savana's school planner and some ibuprofen pills, school officials had found.
That "frightened" student claimed Savana had given her the pills, the court said.
Savana denied having done so.
After a search of her pockets and backpack yielded nothing incriminatory, Kerry Wilson, the assistant principal, ordered his administrative assistant and a school nurse, both women, to force her to disrobe.
"The officials had Savana peel off each layer of clothing in turn," wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw for the majority.
The girl stood in her bra and underwear while the two officials searched her clothes. Then she was ordered to partially remove her bra, exposing her breasts, and finally told to shake out the crotch of her underwear.
"Hiding her head so that the adults could not see that she was about to cry, Savana complied and pulled out her underwear, revealing her pelvic area," Wardlaw wrote. "No ibuprofen was found."
The search was unjustified, the court said, because officials made no attempt to corroborate the claim by a student who was "cornered" and "seeking to shift blame from herself."
Forcing Savana to disrobe also was a "disproportionately extreme measure," the majority said.
"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," Wardlaw wrote, joined by Judges Harry Pregerson, Raymond C. Fisher, Richard A. Paez, Milan D. Smith Jr. and N. Randy Smith.
The court cited arguments by the National Assn. of Social Workers that strip searches of children "can result in serious emotional damage, including the development of, or increase in, oppositional behavior."
"And all this to find prescription-strength ibuprofen," Wardlaw wrote, noting that one pill has the strength of two over-the-counter Advil and might be commonly used by young women to treat menstrual cramps.
The ruling said that Assistant Principal Wilson was liable for monetary damages but that his aide and the school nurse were not because they were acting under his orders.
Judge Ronald M. Gould, joined by Judge Barry G. Silverman, dissented on the grounds that all the school officials had governmental immunity because the law was not clear at the time of the search.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, joined by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Judge Carlos T. Bea, dissented on the grounds that the search was constitutional.
Hawkins wrote: "School officials deserve the greatest latitude when responding to behavior that threatens the health and safety of students or teachers . . .
"When school officials reasonably believe that a student is carrying a weapon or harmful drugs, it will rarely be unreasonable for them to do what they can to neutralize the danger."
Although ibuprofen is mild, "that does not mean it is never harmful," Hawkins wrote.
The ruling affects nine states, including California, that are under the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction.
But California is one of at least seven states that prohibits strip searches of any student for any reason, the court said.
Adam B. Wolf, a lawyer with the ACLU Foundation, which helped represent Savana, said the ruling "sends a clear message to school administrators nationwide that they need to respect certain student privacy and that they can't take the drastic step of strip-searching a student based on one uncorroborated tip."
The lawyers for the school district were not available for comment.