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Can Your Child Be Strip Searched at School? Supreme Court Mulls Issue in Savana Redding School Suit

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 20, 2009 2:19 PM

Savana Redding was a 13-year-old eighth grade honor student at Safford Middle School in Arizona when the school's principal pulled her out of class and took her to his office. Lying open on a desk in his office was Savana's planner (which she claimed to have let another student borrow), and some prescription-strength ibuprofen pills, as well. Possession of these pills on campus was prohibited by a school rule, but Savana denied having anything to do with them.

Not satisfied with the denial, the principal asked to search Savana's belongings. After she allowed him to do so, (nothing was found) she was then taken to the school nurse's office where she was strip-searched quite thoroughly by the school nurse and another official (both female). No pills were found through that search either. Savana was left, as she described, having endured "the most humiliating experience" of her life, and feeling "violated by the strip search." She and her parents ended up suing the school and officials claiming a violation of her civil rights, and the case has now gone all the way to the Supreme Court. An appeals court ruled in favor of Savana Redding, finding that school officials violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  It also ruled that the defendants could be held liable for damages.

Probably very few parents like the idea of their own child being strip-searched in a school setting. But would they feel the same way about a youth (not their own) suspected of dealing drugs at school? How about one accused of dealing potentially deadly, illicit drugs to the parents' own child?

But should the distinction even matter? Weighing heavily on the school's side of the debate is the extent to which schools and officials can go to in following up on their concerns about drug use in school, particularly if supported by other students' leads. In Savana's case, for example, officials were following up on a string of more general incidents and concerns regarding students' drug and alcohol use, plus one student's accusation that Savana Redding was responsible for the pills (of course, she was the one caught with the pills...). The initial court hearing the case had actually ruled in favor of the school officials, so the case is certainly not clear cut.

The fact is that school officials are placed in a very difficult position having to weigh both the safety concerns of their students, in addition to their privacy and civil rights. The Supreme Court has established that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, after all. So now the Court will be asking itself at what point, if any, should school officials be allowed to behave in a manner arguably approaching that of police investigators? A previous case dealing with searches (not strip searches) of students has established that such searches must "reasonable" under all of the circumstances, but can strip searches ever be reasonable? If so, will there be any guidelines for schools and officials to follow? Below are some more links to resources in the case, and we'll keep you posted on how it turns out.

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