Opinion

The naked truth about strip searches in school

Ensuring school safety is important, but the Supreme Court must uphold students' rights.

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For many 13-year-old girls, being featured – even fleetingly – on a national news program might be exciting. Not for me. My image flickered across the screen only briefly on "Dateline NBC" – it was during one of my basketball games, and it showed all of my awkward teenage glory.

The context, however, made the whole thing more embarrassing than exhilarating: The program was all about how a group of my female classmates had been strip-searched after a gym class when several students reported some makeup, cash, and CDs missing. "Dateline" producers had filmed several of our team's games to use as B-roll while the anchor discussed the case.

Though I wasn't one of the girls in the class forced to remove their clothing to prove they weren't hiding the stolen items, I still look back at the episode – which for a time nearly ripped our community apart – with anger and a sense of betrayal.

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Soon after the ordeal took place, I overheard my parents and grandparents discussing it, saying they didn't think the administrators and police officers who orchestrated the search were wrong. I fled the house in tears, aghast that my own family thought it would have been OK for me to have been made to undergo a humiliating act in front of a group of strange adults.

The incident at my school was not the first, nor the last in which young kids were made to strip as a result of school administrators bent on proving their "zero tolerance" for crime. The Supreme Court heard arguments in another such case tuesday – this one involving an 13-year-old Arizona honors student who was strip-searched in 2003 when school officials suspected she possessed ibuprofen. The search turned up nothing.

Defenders of such tactics insist that limiting schools' ability to carry out searches will invite more drugs and danger into classrooms. Certainly, the sentiment of protecting young people within school walls is right, but the method of protection must match that sentiment.

If students are going to be subjected to increasingly restrictive policies – no cellphones, iPods, painkillers, etc. – certainly administrators should have to operate under some limitations as well. And having rules in place to prevent kids from being forced to expose their bodies (something they'd be punished for if done by their own volition) might be a good place to start – particularly if all that's at stake is little more than some 99-cent bottles of Wet 'n' Wild nail polish and a copy of the "Grease" soundtrack.

In weighing potential threats, schools should take several factors into account: Does the suspected student pose an imminent threat? More important: Is the search itself reasonable? While that's open to interpretation, a good rule of thumb might be to get parental permission for anything other than simple tactics like making a student empty his or her pockets.

Savana Redding, the Arizona student whom the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with before the case landed before the high court, still recounts the incident as "the most humiliating experience" of her life. My closest friend shares that pain. Eleven years later, she says that being searched so intrusively left her with a deep emotional scar.

"In all the meetings and interviews afterward, the police and vice principal made it sound like they were just doing it to protect us," she recalls. "But they didn't care about protecting us in that locker room, when girls were crying and begging to call their parents."

A 2005 survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation revealed that high school students know shockingly little about some of their most basic constitutional rights – and it's no wonder when schools are trampling on them so blatantly.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 case involving students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court famously noted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate." At the very least, that should include not having to shed their clothes.

Sara Libby is legal editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

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