In Manassas, Va., a 9-year-old student was suspended for giving a friend a Certs breath mint under a policy that not only bans any drugs but also anything that looks like a drug. A girl in Oklahoma was suspended for bringing a prescription hormone tablet to school to deal with her ovarian disease. At least 20 students in four states have been suspended for bringing Alka-Seltzer to their schools. Under zero-tolerance policies, officials across the country have been suspending kids for possession of aspirin, cough medicine and even sunscreen. The question is what lessons are being taught to our children about basic rights of speech, privacy and due process. Even more troubling, what type of citizens are we shaping in this increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian atmosphere?
(Looking for justice: April Redding helped daughter Savana sue school officials in Arizona./ David M. Sanders for USA TODAY)
This controversy will be before the U.S. Supreme Court today in the case of Savana Redding. Six years ago, Savana was a 13-year-old eighth-grader when her friend was found with prescription ibuprofen pills. When the friend was searched, teachers at her Arizona school also found a day-planner that Redding had loaned her. The friend implicated Redding as the source of the ibuprofen. A good student without disciplinary problems, Redding was confronted by assistant principal Kerry Wilson. She denied any knowledge of the pills but agreed to let Wilson search her bag. When no ibuprofen was found, Redding was taken to the nurse’s office and told to strip down to her underwear in front of the school nurse and an administrative assistant, both women. She stood in her underwear and bra as the two went through her clothes. Finding nothing, they then made the teen move her bra and panties, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.
Redding sued. After a lower court found the search to be unreasonable, the Supreme Court took up the issue the latest in a long line of cases that have treated students as little more than legal nonentities.
This is a far cry from 1969, when the Supreme Court insisted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Over the next few decades, however, a new and more conservative majority chipped away at these rights to the point that most are now lost long before students even approach the schoolhouse gate. Indeed, the courts have allowed students to be punished for speech occurring outside of school, including on social networking sites.
The Supreme Court has given shifting and conflicting rationales to justify school searches. In 1985, it ruled that students have little expectation of privacy in schools a self-fulfilling prophecy given its failure to protect their rights. Ten years later, in Vernonia School District v. Acton, the court allowed random suspicionless drug testing of student athletes. But the justices based their decision on the school’s history of drug problems and the fact that athletes were susceptible to a particular danger of injury if using drugs. The court insisted that athletes have less expectation of privacy because they have to undress in open locker rooms and that forcing teenagers to urinate in cups under the supervision of teachers was a “negligible” intrusion.
Then, in 2002, the court all but abandoned its earlier logic. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it did not matter if there was no history of drug problems in Tecumseh, Okla., and dismissed the notion that athletes warranted different treatment. The court allowed random and suspicionless testing of any students in extracurricular activities from 4-H to chess club. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, mocking the “nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh.”
In the current case, few people would disagree that the search of Redding’s backpack was justified. After all, there had been a couple of prior incidents involving drugs at the school, and the teachers heard that students were planning to take the ibuprofen at lunch as a dare. Yet, the quantum leap from a bag search to a strip search shows how the court has created virtual feudal estates where students are treated as scholastic serfs.
The long-term effect
The impact of such a search on a 13-year-old girl being stripped in front of teachers is obvious and severe. Ironically, nurses at most public schools cannot give a student an aspirin without notifying and getting the consent of the parents. Yet, rather than simply hold the student for parents or police, the school can force the child to strip and expose herself without even notice to the parents.
We need to think seriously about the type of citizens being shaped in these authoritarian environments. These kids are learning that they must accept arbitrary and often illogical actions by public figures. This month in Virginia, an honors high school student was suspended and faces expulsion for taking her prescribed birth control pill in school. With such cases, the government appears to be training a generation of passive citizens ideal for subjugation and control.
In the name of maintaining safe schools, we have created rights-free zones that treat free speech and privacy as virtual threats to education. When citizens learn rights as mere abstractions, we should not be surprised when they treat their obligations as citizens with the same disregard. Until rights join writing and arithmetic as required components of public education, our schools will remain laboratories of authoritarian living.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.