The lawyer for an Arizona school district was grilled Tuesday by US Supreme Court justices who seemed shocked that a middle school assistant principal would order the strip search of a 13-year-old girl.
But as the hour-long oral argument continued, it also appeared possible that the justices may issue a ruling upholding broad authority for school officials to conduct wide-ranging student searches.
"There is too much at risk here," said Matthew Wright, lawyer for the Safford Unified School District No.1 in Arizona. "Administrators must act quickly and effectively to keep kids safe."
The case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, is being closely watched because it could set new rules nationwide for how far school officials can go in conducting searches of students' property – and their bodies – while investigating alleged violations of school policies and rules.
At issue is whether school officials violated the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of 13-year-old Savana Redding when, in October 2003, they ordered her to take off most of her clothes in a fruitless search for suspected drugs.
The strip search occurred after one of Savana's friends was caught with prescription pills. The friend told officials that she'd received the pills from Savana, an eighth-grade honors student. Officials then pulled Savana out of class to be questioned and, eventually, strip-searched.
During the search, two female officials made Savana remove her shoes, socks, pants, and shirt. She was then told to shake her bra and underpants and move them aside to reveal any hidden pills. None were found.
Savana's lawyers say she was traumatized by the experience and developed bleeding ulcers. She never returned to the school after the incident.
Adam Wolf, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) representing Ms. Redding and her mother, told the justices that school officials needed specific information suggesting that Savana had hidden the pills on her body to justify such an intrusive search.
"What this school official did was act on nothing more than a hunch," Mr. Wolf said. "The Fourth Amendment does not countenance rummaging around a 13-year-old girl's body."
The school district's lawyer, Mr. Wright, countered that school officials are charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the health and safety of their students. He said administrators faced with murky reports of a threat to the students must be able to respond quickly and with flexibility to try to get to the truth.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked Wright why the school used such an extreme form of a search. "We can think of a lot of things that are a lot less intrusive," Justice Breyer said. "It seems so easy: 'Put on your gym clothes.' "
Wright responded: "I'm sure in the heat of the moment that issue wasn't thought through."
A year earlier, a student had suffered a near-fatal medical reaction after ingesting a prescription drug smuggled into school by a different student, the lawyer said. Hearing the report about Savana bringing pills to school, administrators were concerned that there might be another similar dangerous episode.
In grappling with the issue, several justices wondered whether the intrusiveness of a search might be proportional to the potential danger of the suspected drug. Savana was suspected of carrying prescription-strength Ibuprofen. But what if she was suspected of carrying heroin, crack, or methamphetamine, they asked.
Justice David Souter suggested there might be a sliding scale of risk that could justify intrusive searches in certain circumstances. He said a school administrator might prefer to "have the kid embarrassed by a strip search than to have some other kid dead."
Savana's lawyer, Wolf, said the focus should be on whether school administrators had enough specific evidence to justify their tactics. "It is unreasonable to think this honor student was hiding pills in her undergarments," he said.
A decision in the case is expected by late June.