[Editor's note: The original version of the headline incorrectly read "high school."]
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.
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.
"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.