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Supreme Court to weigh strip-searches at schools

In an Arizona case, officials were worried about campus safety, while the student felt embarrassment.

April 19, 2009|David G. Savage

SAFFORD, ARIZ. — When Savana Redding, now 19, talks of what happened to her in eighth grade, it is clear that the painful memories linger.

She speaks of being embarrassed and fearful and of staying away from school for two months. And she recalls the "whispers" and "stares" from others in this small eastern Arizona mining town after she was strip-searched in the nurse's office because a vice principal suspected she might be hiding extra-strength ibuprofen in her underwear.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear her case. Its decision, the first to address the issue of strip-searches in schools, will set legal limits, if any, on the authority of school officials to search for drugs or weapons on campus.

If limits on searches are imposed, the school district warns, its ability to keep all drugs out of its schools would be reduced.

In this case, said school district lawyer Matthew Wright, the vice principal was concerned because one student had gotten seriously ill from taking unidentified pills.

"That was the driving force for him. If nothing had been done, and this happened to another kid, parents would have been outraged," Wright said.

In California and six other states, strip-searches of students are not permitted.

Only once in the past has the high court ruled on a school-search case, and it sounds quaint now. It arose in 1980 when a New Jersey girl was caught smoking in the bathroom, and the principal searched her purse for cigarettes.

The justices upheld that search because the principal had a specific reason for looking in her purse. However, they did not say how far officials could go -- and how much of a student's privacy could be sacrificed -- to maintain safety at school.

That's the issue in Safford Unified School District vs. Redding.

Savana was an honors student, shy and "nerdy" when the she began eighth grade at Safford Middle School, she says.

She first learned she was in trouble when Vice Principal Kerry Wilson entered math class one morning and told her to come with him to the office.

He was in search of white pills.

Wilson knew that a boy had gotten sick from pills he obtained at school. And that morning, another eighth-grader, Marissa Glines, was found with what turned out to be several 400-milligram ibuprofen pills tucked into a folded school planner. A few days before, Savana had lent Marissa the folder. The vice principal also found a small knife, a cigarette and a lighter in it.

When asked where she got the pills, Marissa named Savana Redding.

These "could only be obtained with a prescription," Wilson reported.

Commonly used for headaches or to relieve pain from menstrual cramps, ibuprofen is marketed under brand names including Advil and Motrin with recommend doses of 200 and 400 milligrams.

"District policy J-3050 strictly prohibits the nonmedical use or possession of any drug on campus," Wilson explained later in a sworn statement.

Savana said she knew nothing of the pills in the folder.

"He asked if he could search my backpack. I said, 'Sure,' " she recalled. When nothing was found, Wilson sent Savana to the nurse's office, where the nurse and an office assistant were told to "search her clothes" for the missing pills.

Savana said she kept her head down, embarrassed and afraid she would cry. After removing her pink T-shirt and black stretch pants, she was told to pull her underwear to the side and to shake so any pills there could be dislodged.

It was "the most humiliating experience" of her young life, she said.

"We did not find any pills during our search of Savana," Wilson reported.

When her mother arrived at the school to pick her up, another student called out to her: "What are you going to do about them strip-searching Savana?"

Upset and angry, April Redding said she marched to the principal's office, then to the superintendent's office nearby. Both denied at first knowing that a student had been strip-searched.

"It was wrong. I didn't think anything like that could happen to my daughter at school," she said, wiping a tear.

She later met with the principal but left, unsatisfied: "He said you should be happy we didn't find anything."

Contacted at the school recently, Wilson declined to discuss the case, as did other school officials.

When no one apologized, April Redding sued the school district for damages. Her lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union say the strip-search went far beyond the bounds of reasonableness, especially when there was no imminent danger.

A strip-search can be deeply embarrassing and leave an emotional scar, they add.

So far, however, judges have been almost evenly divided over whether Savana's rights were violated.

A federal magistrate in Tucson held that the search was reasonable because the vice principal was relying on the tip from another student. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Last year, however, the full 9th Circuit Court took up the case and ruled 6 to 5 for the Reddings.

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