In a major victory for student right, the Supreme Court has ruled that the strip search of a 13-year-old middle school student was unconstitutional. The Court ruled 8-1 with only Justice Clarence Thomas voting with the school in the case. For an earlier column on the case, click here. However, the justices also voted to protect individual school officials from such lawsuits.
The Court ruled in the case of Savana Redding, who in 2003 was a 13-year-old student strip searched by the teachers at Safford Middle School in Arizona in a mad search for her hidden drug stash. . . Ibuprofen.
In this case, the vice principal had discovered prescription-strength ibuprofen pills on one of Reddings’ friends. That friend then accused Redding of providing her with the pills: typical flipping of an Ibu-head.
Redding was pulled from class by a male vice principal, Kerry Wilson, who led the interrogation and had a nurse and his assistant strip her and search her. No drug were found in her underwear or bra (despite the fact that underwear searches have proven successful with lawyers recently).
The Ninth Circuit ruled that “[c]ommon sense informs us that directing a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen … was excessively intrusive.”
In his majority opinion, Souter held:
Savana’s subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating. The reasonableness of her expectation (required by the Fourth Amendment standard) is indicated by the consistent experiences of other young people similarly searched, whose adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure. See Brief for National Association of Social Workers et al. as Amici Curiae 6–14; Hyman & Perone, The Other Side of School Violence: Educator Policies and Practices that may Contribute to Student Misbehavior, 36 J. School Psychology 7, 13 (1998) (strip search can “result in serious emotional damage”). The common reaction of these adolescents simply registers the obviously different meaning of a search exposing the body from the experience of nakedness or near undress in other school circumstances.
Changing for gym is getting ready for play; exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers and fairly understood as so degrading that a number of communities have decided that strip searches in schools are never reasonable and have banned them no matter what the facts may be, see, e.g., New York City Dept. of Education, Reg. No. A–432, p. 2 (2005), online at http://docs.nycenet.edu/
docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-21/A-432.pdf (“Under no circumstances shall a strip-search of a student be
There was great concern about the case going to this Court which has repeatedly ruled to strip students of protections and rights. While the Court ruled that the search was unreasonable, it also ruled that individual school administrators could not be sued.
In what is likely his last opinion on the Court and a worthy swan song. Not only did Souter go out defending the liberty interests of students, but he showed his ability to unify the Court (with the exception of course of Thomas). Justice David Souter held that the search was “embarrassing, frightening and humiliating” and violated her subjective expectation of privacy. However, Souter also held that the division over the case shows that immunity is appropriate in this case. Only Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from saying that school’s vice principal, Kerry Wilson, could not be held financially liable.
Justice Clarence Thomas continued his consistent opposition to such individual rights, particularly when invoked by students. In a signature line, he wrote “[p]reservation of order, discipline and safety in public schools is simply not the domain of the Constitution. And, common sense is not a judicial monopoly or a constitutional imperative.”
Souter’s decision is also likely to add to the regret of his departure for civil libertarians. This is particularly the case given Sonia Sotomayor’s prior rulings against student rights, here.
For the Souter opinon, click here 08-479.
For the Thomas dissent, click here
For the full story, click here.