Opinion

Drug war madness

She was a 13-year-old honor student. She may or may not have given her friend prescription-strength ibuprofen, though the girl certainly didn't have any on her. An assistant principal, acting on the word of a scared fellow student, brought the eighth-grade girl into his office and subjected her to a strip search. In the presence of the school nurse and the assistant principal's administrative assistant, this young woman was forced to strip off her clothes including her underwear, exposing first her breasts and then her pubic area, on the erroneous suspicion that she was hiding . . . ibuprofen. At this Arizona middle school, students are prohibited from carrying drugs -- even over-the-counter medication -- into school.

Last month, The Times reported that a panel of judges on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned (in a 6-5 decision) previous rulings that condoned the actions of the assistant principal, who is now finally considered liable for damages.

The student was searched by women, the nurse and the administrative assistant. It's still abuse. I've been through these searches. Regardless of your gender or that of the people searching you, it's a violation of your rights.

I spent six months in federal prison for civil disobedience a few years ago. What vividly remains far and away the worst part of the experience was being strip-searched. After receiving a visit, I ran the random (sometimes not so random) risk of having to strip off all my clothes, including undergarments -- just in the way this middle-school girl was forced to strip -- and bend over and cough. As a survivor of sexual abuse, these strip searches were particularly traumatic. Given the percentage of incarcerated women who are also survivors of abuse, these strip searches were traumatic for most women. Some guards used their power punitively. Such searches can re-traumatize survivors, and even for women and girls on the outside, sexual abuse and assault are far too common.

Until this recent successful appeal, school officials, supported by not one but two previous sets of judges, had (almost) gotten away with an unfathomable violation. In their zeal to completely eliminate student access to all drugs, in what will forever remain a failed endeavor (we can't keep drugs out of prisons, so how can we keep them out of schools?) that neither teaches our children about fact-based decision-making nor builds trusting relationships with them, those fighting the drug war have unapologetically crossed a very serious line. There is no moral defense for their reprehensible actions. They were not protecting the safety of students. What are we doing to our students by treating them in such a manner? Why are we doing things to 13-year-old girls that appear to be preparing them for prison?

While the Arizona assistant principal might be exposed to a civil liability, it's not nearly enough. Everyone who stood by should be fired for the unconscionable abuse of this student. Everyone who participated in this horrific violation -- including the nurse and the secretary -- deserves nothing short of being expelled from our public schools immediately. They should be nowhere near our children, ever -- let alone responsible for their protection.

Thanks to the drug war, middle-school administrators are behaving like prison guards -- and that scares the hell out of me. It horrifies me that an assistant principal, his administrative assistant, a nurse, five of the 11 judges in this case and two previous sets of judges all thought this act was acceptable.

Is no one -- not even 13-year-old young women and their bodies -- safe from drug war zealots?

Vera Leone is an Internet communications associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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