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A common-sense ruling on strip searches

A Supreme Court decision lays down a bright line for school officials.

June 27, 2009

Common sense and constitutional law don't always come to the same conclusion, but the U.S. Supreme Court has done justice to both in ruling that an Arizona middle school violated the 4th Amendment by subjecting a 13-year-old girl to a strip search. With only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the court has drawn a bright line that school officials will transgress at their legal peril. It also has nudged other states to join California and six more states that ban strip searches of students by school authorities.

Savana Redding was in eighth grade when school officials, suspecting that she was concealing prescription-strength ibuprofen, ordered her to remove her clothes and stretch out her bra and underpants. The search was unconstitutional, Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court, for two reasons: The officials lacked reasonable suspicion that Savana was hiding drugs in her underwear, and the drugs in question, even if she had possessed them, posed no danger to students. That double requirement would seem to prohibit strip searches except in the rarest of cases -- for example, when officials have a good reason to suspect that a student has secreted hard drugs or a weapon in her clothes.

In laying down this legal test, Souter displayed an admirable awareness that "adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness" of a strip search. He dismissed the notion that what Savanna endured was no more traumatic than being observed changing clothes before gym. In an interview after oral arguments in the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg worried that her male colleagues might not have recognized that 13 is "a very sensitive age for a girl." In the end, the male justices "got it" -- but they also recognized that it isn't only girls who would feel violated by a full body search. The exception was Thomas, who in a previous case made clear that he doubts whether schoolchildren of either gender have meaningful constitutional rights.

Given the outrageousness of this search, it might seem obvious that the court would rule as it did. But, until this decision, the law was unclear (which is why the court said the individuals who ordered Savana's search couldn't be sued for damages, though the school district could still be held liable). Moreover, comments by the justices at oral arguments suggested that they were torn. Even Souter wrestled with the concern that justice for Savana might prevent school administrators in other cases from responding promptly to a serious drug-abuse problem.

That won't be a problem if schools follow the guidelines in Souter's opinion. Better yet, they would be spared such decisions by laws in every state banning strip searches by school officials. If such searches are needed to protect schools and students, they should be done by police.

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