After two decades of giving school officials wide leeway to search students for drugs or weapons, the Supreme Court set a legal limit on Thursday, ruling out of bounds the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl who was suspected of hiding pain relief pills.
In an 8-1 decision, the court called this search degrading, unreasonable and unconstitutional.
Justice David H. Souter, in what could be his final opinion before his retirement, said a strip-search is “categorically distinct” from other efforts to find drugs or weapons on campus because it is embarrassing and humiliating to the children who are targeted.
In the past, the court has said school officials can search purses, backpacks or lockers if they have reason to believe a student has drugs. And twice, justices have upheld mandatory drug testing of high schoolers, including athletes, even when there was no reason to think any of them was using drugs.
But requiring a student to remove her clothes goes too far, Souter said. He suggested such a search would be justified only if a school official had strong reason to believe a student was hiding a dangerous drug or a weapon in his or her underwear.
Savana Redding, now 19, whose lawsuit in Arizona led to Thursday’s ruling, said she was pleased and surprised by the outcome. “I’m very excited and very happy knowing it means this is not likely to happen to anyone else at school,” she said. Redding will attend Eastern Arizona College this fall, she said.
Her lawyer, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was encouraged that the court had made clear that students have privacy rights at school.
“Schoolchildren are not little prisoners subject to search. This says the Constitution applies in school, and children have rights that must be respected,” he said.
School lawyers read the decision as nearly prohibiting strip-searches.
“We don’t think it is a horrible decision, but it is going to limit the discretion of school officials. They will think long and hard before they authorize a strip-search in the future,” said Naomi Gittins, a lawyer for the National School Boards Assn.
In 2003, Redding was an eighth-grader in the small town of Safford, Ariz., near the border with New Mexico. That fall, one boy had gotten violently ill from taking pills at school. When another girl was found with several white pills in a folder, she told Vice Principal Kerry Wilson she got them from Savana. The pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen, equivalent to two Advil tablets.
Savana said she knew nothing of the pills. Her backpack was searched. When no pills were found, Wilson sent her to a nurse’s office, where she was told to remove her outer clothes and to pull out her bra and underwear to check for hidden pills.
Nothing was found, and the school officials did not apologize when Savana’s mother, April, confronted them over the strip-search. The Reddings then filed suit, alleging a violation of Savana’s rights under the 4th Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches by the government.
The decision in Safford Unified School District vs. Redding was only a partial victory for the Reddings, however. The justices threw out their suit against Wilson and other school officials on the grounds that the law against strip-searches was not “clearly established” at the time of incident.
Under federal law, public officials can be sued and held liable if they violate a person’s “clearly established” rights under the Constitution. Souter noted that until Thursday, judges around the nation were divided over whether a strip-search at school was unconstitutional.
Thursday’s decision sets a standard for all future school searches, but it may result in no compensation for Savana and her mother. The court sent the case back to Arizona to consider whether the school district may face some liability.
Souter agreed that the vice principal had reasonable grounds for questioning Savana about drugs and for searching her backpack. But he went much too far, Souter added.
“In sum,” he said, “what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. He complained that the ruling “grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge.”
It is the second time this week that Thomas alone has dissented in a major case. On Monday, the court rejected a challenge to the Voting Rights Act, but Thomas said he would have struck down the law provision in question as unconstitutional.
In the school case, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they would have gone further and upheld a liability ruling against the school officials in this case.
Quoting from an earlier case, Stevens wrote that he had long believed that “it does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude.”
Ginsburg, the court’s only woman, said the vice principal’s conduct was inexcusable. He had no real evidence to suspect Savana of wrongdoing: He did not contact her mother, and he made Savana sit in the office for several hours after the strip-search, she said.
“Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity,” Ginsburg wrote.
Souter will retire after this Monday, when the court’s final rulings are handed down. The nominee to succeed him, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, has taken a similarly strong stand against strip-searches. In 2004, she voted to uphold a suit against several Connecticut officials who had authorized the strip-search of two girls at a juvenile detention center.
These were “troubled adolescent girls facing no criminal charges,” Sotomayor wrote. Because of strip-searches’ potential to humiliate the victims, she wrote, “we should be especially wary” when children are targeted.
California and six other states forbid strip-searches at school. The others are Iowa, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin.