The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday on whether school administrators may strip-search a student based on mere suspicion that the student may possess drugs.
Savana Redding was a 13-year-old honors student with no prior disciplinary record when she was called out of class by the assistant principal of her school in Safford, Ariz., in 2003. A self-described nerd, Redding says she wasn't worried.
"I've never been in trouble, so I didn't think there was anything I could possibly have done to be in trouble," Redding says.
Although there were plenty of signs in the questions put to Redding, she says she did not understand that the assistant principal thought she might be hiding drugs.
Redding readily agreed to have her backpack searched. When that didn't turn up anything, she was ordered to follow the secretary into the nurse's office.
Redding says she was then asked to strip down to her underwear and stood there while the nurse and secretary inspected her clothes and shoes.
"Then, you know, I thought they were going to let me put my clothes back on, but instead they asked me to pull out my bra and shake it, and the crotch on my underwear, too," Redding says.
Redding says her whole body was visible to the school administrators. She kept her head down so the nurse and the secretary couldn't see her fighting back tears.
"When you're that age, you're going through puberty, [and] you're embarrassed of your body as it is," Redding says. "Let alone to have to sit there and stand pretty much naked in front of professional people that you would see every day almost. It's just pretty horrible."
School officials found nothing, but Redding was not allowed to return to class that day. She just sat for hours in the administrative office, watching other students go by.
Redding says she developed stomach ulcers after the incident, didn't return to school for months and ultimately transferred to another school. Her mother, a nurse's aide, believed her daughter was violated. She reported school authorities to the police and ultimately, with her daughter, sued for damages.
The School's Argument
In its brief, the school says the fact that Redding was an honors student who had never been in trouble before is not evidence of good conduct, but only evidence that she had never been caught.
The school views itself as a protector of its students' health and safety, which includes protecting students from both illegal and over-the-counter drugs. From the school's viewpoint, any suspicion that a student possesses drugs may be justification for a strip search.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that schools may conduct searches of a student's purse or backpack without a warrant, but the court did not then address the question of an intimate search.
The Safford officials in Tuesday's case portray their schools as drug-infested and Redding as a likely suspect for a variety of reasons.
Among the reasons given to justify the search: One youngster had already ended up in the hospital from taking drugs, and another student had reported more drugs were about to be given out. School administrators said Redding was seen at a dance early in the year among a group of kids believed to have had alcohol on their breath. Probably most damaging, one youngster who had been found with 400 milligrams of prescription-strength ibuprofen said on the day of the search that she got it from Redding.
'The Totality Of Circumstances'
"This is where you have to look at the totality of the circumstances in the case," says Matthew Wright, lawyer for the school district.
When asked whether such an extensive search made sense for a pill that is the equivalent of two Advil, Wright says school officials cannot have known these were the only pills.
"With hindsight and with calm reflection, we can look back and say, 'OK, what kind of danger really was there on campus?' " Wright says. "But when you're on the ground making on-the-spot decisions, you don't have that luxury. School administrators are not pharmacologically trained in being able to assess the relative dangers any one drug might present, but what they are charged with is to make sure that students are kept safe from such threats of danger."
Redding's lawyer, Adam Wolf, counters that a strip search is entirely different from a search of a purse or a backpack.
"Children call their private parts their private parts for a reason. They not subject to exposure, to observation by school officials. When children are strip-searched, they experience trauma that's similar in kind and degree to sexual abuse," says Wolf.
School lawyer Wright counters, "We just have to ask ourselves, as a policy matter, do you really want a drug-free environment? And if you do, then there are going to be some privacy invasions when there is reason to suspect that those drugs are being dispensed on campus, that they're being used by students."
The question for the Supreme Court is where the Constitution draws the line: Do school administrators have virtual free rein in determining what justifies a strip search?
In this case, for instance, the only direct piece of evidence linking Redding to drugs at all came from a childhood friend. When asked why the friend would make up such a story, Redding said she really didn't know — that maybe she was scared, or embarrassed.
"We weren't really friends anymore, because she was gravitating more towards the gothic group, and she started wearing more black and smoking cigarettes, and she didn't really want to hang out with me anymore because she was embarrassed of me because I was a nerd," Redding says.
Redding's lawyer says the implications of the school's decision are worrisome for students across the country.
"The school took an everyday occurrence, which is finger-pointing or tattling, and turned it into a life-altering event. If the Supreme Court allows a strip search based on these minimal facts, children across the country need to be concerned that when they enter school every day, there's a chance that they very well could be strip-searched."
Redding is now in college. She is a psychology major, hoping to be a counselor for teenagers in the future. She has taken her first plane trip to be at Tuesday's Supreme Court argument and admits she's nervous.