Strip searches in middle school? Top court to decide.
The Supreme Court must decide whether an Arizona school went too far in strip-searching an eighth-grade girl for drugs.
[Editor's note: The original version of the headline incorrectly read "high school."]Skip to next paragraph
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Administrators at an Arizona middle school are asking the US Supreme Court to rule that they did not violate the privacy rights of an eighth-grade girl who was strip-searched in a fruitless attempt to find suspected drugs.
At issue in the case, set for argument Tuesday morning, is whether the strip search of a 13-year-old girl by school officials is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Lawyers for the girl and her mother say it was an unconstitutional invasion of the girl's privacy. School officials say their actions were justified because they were trying to protect the student population from a risk to their health and safety.
The case could set a national standard for how far school officials can go in conducting searches of students' property – and even their bodies – while investigating alleged violations of school policies and rules.
"This is the case where the Supreme Court is likely to decide how easy it is for your child to be strip-searched," says Graham Boyd, one of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers representing the girl and her mother.
In addition, the high court is being asked to decide whether the assistant principal who authorized the strip search can be shielded by qualified immunity from a lawsuit filed against him by the girl's mother.
Boyd and ACLU lawyer Adam Wolf say the search was based on just one unreliable accusation by a fellow student, which is not sufficient reason to justify such an intrusive search.
"A child's 'private parts' are not subject to observation by school officials without significant justification," said Mr. Wolf, in the brief for the schoolgirl and her mother.
School officials counter that the search was justified under a 24-year-old Supreme Court precedent that allows flexibility in how administrators may respond to issues related to school safety.
In 1985, the high court authorized school officials to search students' purses and backpacks when they had reasonable grounds to suspect the search would turn up evidence.
A strip search for prescription drugs
But the justices said the search must not be "excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the infraction."
The current case stems from a strip search conducted in October 2003 at Safford Middle School in Safford, Ariz. The girl, Savana Redding, was suspected of bringing high-strength ibuprofen to school to share with other students during lunch.
One of Savana's friends identified her as the source of the prescription drugs, under questioning by the school's assistant principal, Kerry Wilson.
Mr. Wilson then questioned Savana. She denied any involvement or knowledge of the prescription drugs. Wilson searched her backpack and found nothing improper. The assistant principal then instructed a female staff member to take Savana to the school nurse's office.