WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices on Tuesday revealed sharp differences over whether Arizona school officials acted properly in strip-searching a 13-year-old girl.
Conservative justices stressed schools' need to combat drug abuse. Other justices suggested that the specific search, involving ibuprofen, might have gone too far. The court's final answer will guide educators nationwide, as the justices determine when standard constitutional protections give way to school safety.
"Having an aspirin tablet does not present a health or safety risk," Justice David Souter said.
Justice Stephen Breyer added that the strip-search of eighth-grader Savana Redding may have been "a little extreme," and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg conveyed dismay at the search's intrusiveness.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, however, sounded sympathetic to the school's actions, with Scalia in particular suggesting that "the drugs must be in her underpants" if every other reasonable hiding place on the student had been searched.
"As long as (the assistant principal) had reason to suspect, he was entitled to search anyplace," argued Matthew W. Wright, an attorney for the Safford Unified School District, adding that "students will often secrete" contraband in underwear.
The case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, arose in October 2003 at remote Safford Middle School, two hours northeast of Tucson, Ariz. Redding, an honor student with no prior disciplinary record, was ordered to the assistant principal's office. School officials had found five pills — four ibuprofen tablets and another type of anti-inflammatory medication — that another student falsely claimed belonged to Redding.
A school nurse and administrative assistant, both female, took Redding into a back room.
"With both officials staring at Savana, she took off her pants and her shirt," Redding's legal brief recounted. "The officials did not notice any pills hidden in Savana's clothing, on her body, or under her panties or bra. Still, they told Savana to pull out her panties and bra and to move them to the side."
The strip search exposed Redding's "genital area and breasts" to the school officials and was "the most humiliating experience" in the girl's life, according to a legal brief. It didn't detect any pills or contraband, and Redding said it harmed her.
"I've had a hard time talking to people and making friends," Redding, who's now a student at Eastern Arizona College, said outside the courtroom after the hour-long oral argument.
An appellate court ruled that the search violated Redding's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Officials were acting on vague and uncorroborated allegations and searched too aggressively, it said.
The finding of an unconstitutional search meant that the assistant principal, Kerry Wilson, lost legal immunity and could be personally sued. Redding then filed a lawsuit against Wilson, which is awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
The Obama administration agrees that the strip-search violated the Fourth Amendment but says that the school officials still are immune from lawsuits because the law governing school searches was ambiguous.
Adam Wolf, Redding's attorney, who's based in Santa Cruz, Calif., argued that the school's search was unreasonable no matter what drugs were being searched for. That didn't seem to sit right with several justices, including frequent swing Justice Anthony Kennedy as well as Souter.
"You're saying it's better to have the risk of violent sickness or death than to have the risk of embarrassment," Souter said.
The case is being watched closely, and not just because of its R-rated circumstances. It's pitting school district officials against teachers. The National School Boards Association, representing 14,000 school districts nationwide, doesn't want reasonable school disciplinary actions to be second-guessed with lawsuits. The National Education Association, representing 3.2 million educators, counters that strip-searches are so emotionally harmful that they must be limited sharply.
A 1985 case, New Jersey v. T.L.O, allows school districts more Fourth Amendment leeway in searching students than is permitted in standard police searches. Even so, the standard requires that student searches be "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place."
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