In a decision that could have significant implications for school administrators' ability to keep their campuses safe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 1, this week that the strip search of a 13-year-old Arizona girl by school officials who were looking for prescription-strength drugs violated her constitutional rights.
Savana Redding, an honors student who was in the eighth grade at the time of the search in 2003, was suspected of having prescription-strength ibuprofen, based on an uncorroborated tip from another student who was caught with pills. The school has a policy against over-the-counter or prescription drugs being on the grounds without prior permission. But no pills were found on Redding when her underwear was examined by two female school officials.
The court ruled that officials at Safford Middle School would have been justified had they limited their search to the girl's backpack and outer clothing. But in searching her undergarments, they went too far and violated her Fourth Amendment privacy rights, all the justices—except Clarence Thomas—said.
"In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear," the court said. "We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable."
Some experts suspect that the high court is attempting to establish a more clearly defined "sliding scale" for what criteria school officials must use to decide whether to use a strip search as opposed to a clothed search. The decision suggests that the greater the potential harm, the less evidence school staff would need to perform a strip search. Writing for the majority, Justice David Souter said that had Redding been suspected of having illegal drugs that could have posed a far greater danger to herself and other students, the strip search might have been justified.
Todd DeMitchell, a professor of education at the University of New Hampshire who studies the impact of court cases on schools and school liability, says the decision will force educators charged with maintaining discipline and ensuring the health and safety of students to ask more questions before conducting a strip search.
"The court now wants there to be more information for school officials to expand the scope of a search from a backpack and pocket search to a strip search," DeMitchell says. "There has to be more specific information that can articulate that the strip search itself will reveal the contraband in question."
Education law experts say that the high court was forced to balance the competing rights of a student to be free from unreasonable search and seizure at school with the need of educators to provide a drug-free school climate and maintain discipline.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, says that unless there's an immediate, life-threatening situation involving a weapon, school administrators should not be doing strip searches. Even then, he says, school staff should "pick up the phone, notify the police, and let law enforcement intervene at that stage in time."
"There are very, very few situations that would warrant a school administrator going as far as a strip search," he says.
The ruling sends the case back to the lower courts to assess what damages, if any, should be paid by the school district. However, by a 7-2 vote, the court found that the individual officials in the case should not be held liable because "clearly established law" at the time of the search did not make it clear that it violated the Fourth Amendment.
Trump says that the court's ruling on the issue of liability shows that such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. He argues that the range of items being searched for and the circumstances surrounding a search might make it difficult for courts to set common ground.
"We don't want to push our school administrators into a corner where they're going to be so fearful of being sued that they're not going to take reasonable steps to protect students," he says.