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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.

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Savana was told to undress. The staff member and the nurse watched the girl remove her shoes and socks, and then her shirt and pants. No pills were discovered in the shoes or clothing. Redding was instructed to "pull out her panties and bra and to move them to the side," according to the Reddings' brief. "This order forced Savana to expose her genital area and breasts to the school officials," the brief says. No pills were discovered.

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"The school officials' viewing of Savana's naked body was the most humiliating experience of her life," Wolf says in his brief.

Throughout the confrontation, Savana, an honor roll student, was not permitted to call her mother, the brief says.

The school district's brief does not dispute any of the details of the search. It does add: "All of this was done without anyone touching Redding."

School officials say the strip search was justified in part because a year earlier a student had smuggled prescription pills into school and distributed them to classmates. One student had an adverse reaction and had to be airlifted 100 miles away to a Tucson hospital.

The Redding questioning and search was prompted after a male student went to Wilson, the assistant principal, to inform him that pills had been passed out to several students who were planning to take them during lunch hour. The student told Wilson he'd received the pill from Marissa Glines.

Wilson questioned Marissa and asked her to empty her pockets. She produced several pills, and said they had come from Savana.

School officials say the combination of factors provided enough evidence to justify the subsequent strip search of Savana. The Reddings' lawyers disagree.

"Where the school is going wrong is that they don't seem to understand that searching a backpack is dramatically different than asking a student to take their clothes off," says Mr. Boyd.

Privacy vs. safety

The National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators filed a friend of the court brief supporting the school officials.

"School officials should be afforded legal clarity and appropriate deference when making on-the-spot decisions that require the balancing of student privacy with the need to ensure a safe and orderly learning environment for all students," writes David Day in the National School Boards Association brief. He added that the courts should grant deference to the decisions of school officials who are charged with preserving the learning environment and protecting the safety of students.

In another friend of the court brief, Raymond Brescia, a professor at Albany Law School, examined the historical record of student search cases. "Given our historical traditions of treatment of students in school, this is way beyond the pale. Such a strip search never would have been conceivable in a one-room schoolhouse of 1835," he says.

He added, "There are no reported cases out there of a teacher seeking these powers."

Boyd says school officials must be mindful of the potential impact of their actions on students. He cited specialists who say that for some children the experience of being strip-searched is similar to sexual abuse.

After the strip search incident, Savana Redding developed bleeding ulcers, says Boyd. "Savana has never returned to that school," he says. "She refused to go back."

A decision in the case is expected by late June.

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