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Supreme Court to hear school strip-search case

The justices will also determine whether a child with a disability must try public education before being reimbursed with taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

January 17, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear two schools cases, one to clarify the law on searching students for drugs and the other to decide whether taxpayers must cover private school tuition for a child with a disability before the student has tried a public school.

The drug case began when school officials in southern Arizona decided to crack down on the use and abuse of prescription medications, including ibuprofen.

The Constitution protects against "unreasonable searches" by the government, and the court in 1985 extended this protection to students. But school officials also were told by the court 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.

Now, the court will decide whether a strip search is reasonable.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a student's right to sue her assistant principal for ordering her to be taken to a nurse's office and examined in her underwear. Officials in her middle school were alarmed about the abuse of prescription drugs, including prescription-strength ibuprofen. One student had fallen violently ill from ingesting these pills.

Savana Redding, 13, was identified by another girl -- wrongly, it turned out -- as having brought the pills to school. The search in the nurse's office turned up nothing. The girl described the strip search as humiliating, and she and her parents sued the Safford Unified School District and the assistant principal for violating her constitutional rights.

In its 6-5 decision, the 9th Circuit judges said the assistant principal should 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." The judges said that this full-body search was clearly unreasonable in light of the circumstances.

Before the case could go further, the school district appealed to the Supreme Court. Its lawyers said the ruling, if allowed to stand, would "create enormous confusion for school officials in trying to determine when and how searches may now properly be conducted." They also said that because judges do not understand the "shifting trends in drug abuse," they should defer to the judgment of school officials.

A lawyer for Savana said students should not be deprived of their rights. "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," said Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The court voted Friday to hear the case of Safford vs. Redding in April.

An Oregon case the justices agreed to take up will decide a dispute over special education.

Federal law says schools must provide a "free appropriate public education" to students with a disability. This can include paying tuition at a private school, but it is unclear whether parents first must try a public program before they can claim reimbursement for the cost of a private school.

Last year, the 9th Circuit said the Forest Grove School District must pay the $5,200 monthly cost of a private program for a child with attention deficit disorder. The court will hear the appeal in April.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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