Supreme Court Hears School Strip Search Case

The Supreme Court hears arguments on whether a school violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when officials strip-searched her, looking for prescription-strength ibuprofen. They were acting on a tip from a classmate.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In the staid chambers of the Supreme Court today, the talk was about underwear and whether school officials can strip search a student. The Supreme Court has given public school officials wide latitude to search student backpacks, purses and pockets for drugs and weapons. Today for the first time the question was strip searches. And NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg now reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Savana Redding was 13 years old, an honor student at Safford Middle School in southeastern Arizona with no prior disciplinary record. Six years ago this self-described nerd was called out of class by the assistant principal, who had been tipped off there might be drugs passed around at lunch that day. One student had turned over a single prescription-strength ibuprofen tablet and implicated a second student.

The second student then implicated Savana Redding, and now Redding was in the assistant principal's office. First her backpack was searched. When nothing was found, she was strip searched by the school secretary and school nurse down to her bra and panties. And then ordered to hold the bra out and shake it, the same for the crotch on her panties. In an interview earlier this month she recalled the experience as humiliating and traumatic.

NORRIS: I mean, I don't know, when you're that age, you're going through puberty, you know, your, you know, embarrassed of your body as it is, let alone to have to sit there and stand pretty much naked in front of, you know, professional people that you would see every day, almost. It's just, it's pretty horrible.

TOTENBERG: Savana developed stomach ulcers and ultimately transferred to another school. No drugs were ever found. And she and her mother eventually sued school officials, contending her constitutional rights had been violated. On the steps of the Supreme Court today the lawyer for the school district, Matthew Wright, said that teachers and administrators have to be free to conduct strip searchers.

NORRIS: When it comes to health and safety of students, you have to go as far as reasonably needing to make sure that kids are not at that risk.

TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom Wright said a strip search is justified as long as school officials have some reason to suspect that a kid may be hiding contraband. Justice Scalia, what about a body cavity search? Answer, we don't have the training to do that. Justice Scalia, but the legal rationale would be the same. Wright conceded the point but said that if local school districts don't want body cavity searches, they can ban them as a policy matter, just as they can ban strip searches as a policy matter.

Justice Ginsburg suggested the school officials in this case had been less than thorough before conducting the strip search. They hadn't even asked the student who implicated Savana when she got the ibuprofen pill or where. Justice Souter, you're grouping every pill, whether prescription or over the counter, as posing a health and safety risk that justifies a strip search. At some point that gets silly. If you put aspirin in the contraband category, that's questionable. Justice Scalia, did the school even know what the pill was at that time? Answer, yes.

But school officials had no way of knowing what other pills were out there. School officials aren't trained pharmacologists, said Wright. They need a bright line that says once they suspect a student has contraband, they can conduct a strip search. Justice Scalia, any contraband? What about a black marker pen? I see that is considered contraband at your school. Answer, yes, because they sniff them. If the school district's Mr. Wright had a tough time, it was nothing compared to Savana Redding's lawyer Adam Wolf of the ACLU. Justice Kennedy, suppose the school gets a tip that a dangerous drug like meth is going to be distributed. Does that make a difference in the reasonableness of the search? Answer, no, because there was no suspicion that Savana was hiding drugs in her undergarments. The only basis for the suspicion was that they didn't find anything in her outer garments or backpack.

Justice Alito, what's wrong with that? Answer, they didn't even search desks or lockers, but they conducted a strip search. At this point in the argument a gender difference reared its head. Justice Breyer suggested that it's no big deal when kids strip. After all, they do it for gym class all the time. Savana Redding didn't reveal her body beyond her underclothes, said Breyer.

Justice Ginsburg, the court's only female justice bristled, her eyes flashing with anger. She noted that there's no dispute that Savana was required to shake out her bra and the crotch of her panties. Ginsburg seemed to all but shout, boys may like to preen in the locker room, but girls, particularly teenage girls, do not. Pressed by several justices as to when a strip search would be justified, lawyer Wolf said basically only if officials have some information that says the student is hiding drugs in her undergarments.

Justice Souter, I'd accept that argument if the risks of a mistake were lower, but here the principal might reasonably think it's better to embarrass the student than risk violent illness or death. Lawyer Wolf said in this instance the assistant principal had little more than a hunch to justify the strip search and common sense should've told school officials that kids don't hide pills in their underpants next to their genitalia. As he put it, there's an ick-factor here.

Justice Breyer suggested that it might be seen as normal behavior for adolescents to hide illegal drugs in their underwear. When I was 8, or 10 or 12 years old, he said, we changed our clothes all the time for gym. And then in a grand moment of Supreme Court misspeak, the justice added, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear. The courtroom exploded in laughter. The justice blushed.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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