RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. Supreme Court hears a case today that raises the hackles and pulse rates of parents, teachers and students. At issue is whether school administrators may strip-search a student based on the mere suspicion that the student possesses drugs.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Savana Redding was 13 years old, an honors student with no prior disciplinary record. In 2003, this self-described nerd in Safford, Arizona was called out of class by the assistant principal. She says she wasn't worried.
Ms. SAVANA REDDING: I've never been in trouble, so I didn't think there was anything I could've possibly done to be in trouble.
TOTENBERG: Although there were plenty of signs in the questions put to Savana, she says she didn't put two and two together, didn't understand that the assistant principal thought she might be hiding drugs. Savana 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, where she recalls vividly the humiliation that followed. First, the jacket and shoes off.
Ms. REDDING: They were looking, you know, everywhere, every seam, every little hole. And then it was the shirt and the pants next. And, you know, I'm just standing there in my underwear and they're just looking through my clothes, looking everywhere, like, searching for something. And I don't, you know, I really don't know what's going on still.
And 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.
TOTENBERG: Did you think that they could see your naked body?
Ms. REDDING: Of course they could. The way that they had me do it, you could see everything, pretty much.
TOTENBERG: Savana says she kept her head down so the nurse and the secretary couldn't see her fighting back tears.
Ms. REDDING: I mean, I don't know. When you're that age, you're going through puberty, you know, you're, 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: School officials found nothing, but Savana was not allowed to return to class that day. She just sat for hours in the administrative office, watching other students go by. Afterwards, Savana developed stomach ulcers, didn't return to school for months and ultimately transferred to another school.
Her mother, a nurse's aide, saw her daughter as violated. She reported school authorities to police and ultimately, with her daughter, sued for damages. Today, the case will be argued in the Supreme Court.
The school sees the case entirely differently from Savana and her mother. The fact that Savana Redding is an honors student who had never been in trouble before is not evidence of good conduct, the school says in its brief, it's only evidence that Savana had never been caught. The school views its job as the protector of the health and safety of the children in its custody, and that includes protecting the students from both illegal and over-the-counter drugs. Therefore, 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 School officials in today's case portray their schools as drug-infested and Savana Redding as a likely suspect for a variety of reasons.
Among the reasons justifying the search: one youngster had already ended up in the hospital from taking drugs, another student had reported more drugs were about to be given out. School administrators said Savana was seen at a dance early in the year among a group of kids believed to have had alcohol on their breath. And probably most damaging, one youngster, who'd been found with a 400-milligram prescription ibuprofen on the day of the search, said she got it from Savana.
We called the assistant principal who ordered the search and the school superintendent, and both referred us to the school district lawyer, Matthew Wright.
Mr. MATTHEW WRIGHT (Attorney): This is where you have to look at the totality of the circumstances in the case.
TOTENBERG: Why didn't the assistant principal call Savana's mother before authorizing a strip search? Was it worth it for a pill that's the equivalent of two Advil? Wright says that school officials cannot have known these were the only pills.
Mr. WRIGHT: With hindsight and with calm reflection, we can look back and say, okay, what kind of danger really was there on campus? But when you're on the ground making, you know, on-the-spot decisions, you don't have that luxury. You know, 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.
TOTENBERG: Savana Redding's lawyer, Adam Wolf, counters that a strip search is entirely different from a search of a purse or a backpack.
Mr. ADAM WOLF (Attorney): Children call their private parts their private parts for a reason. They're 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.
TOTENBERG: School district lawyer Wright concedes a strip-search is intrusive, but he adds:
Mr. WRIGHT: 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.
TOTENBERG: Just where does the Constitution draw 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 Savana to drugs at all came from a childhood friend. When I asked Savana why the friend would make up such a story, she said she really didn't know; that maybe the friend was scared, or embarrassed.
Ms. REDDING: We weren't really friends anymore, because she was gravitating more towards the gothic group, and she started, you know, 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.
TOTENBERG: Savana's lawyer, Adam Wolf.
Mr. WOLF: 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.
TOTENBERG: Savana Redding is now in college. She's a psychology major, hoping to be a counselor for teenagers in the future. She's taken her first ever plane trip to be at today's Supreme Court argument and she admits she's nervous.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: In West Virginia, another invasion of privacy case is unfolding. This one involves two FBI workers. They're accused of spying on teenage girls getting ready to model donated prom dresses at a mall. The teens were changing in a temporary dressing area. The two employees, working in an FBI satellite office at the mall, are alleged to have trained a security camera on them for 90 minutes.
Organizers of the event, called the Cinderella Project, told the Associated Press they are shocked and angry. Neither prosecutors nor the FBI are providing details. An FBI statement said the agency is "committed to a timely and full resolution of this matter."
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