Strip-Searching at Schools

In 2003, Savana Redding, a 13-year-old honor student at Safford Middle School in Arizona, was suspected by school administrators of carrying and distributing illegal drugs after a fellow student alleged that she was guilty. They didn’t bother to call Savana’s mother, but proceeded to strip search her down to her underwear.

After the traumatizing event—from which she developed ulcers, and was too embarrassed to ever return to that school—the officials did, in fact, find a controlled substance: a prescription-strength ibuprofen, the equivalent of two Advils.

The young girl and her mother sued the school district for violating the fourth amendment, which protects all citizens against unreasonable search and seizure, and the case has worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tuesday, to the chagrin of many onlookers, the justices were split on the issue.

“Justice Stephen G. Breyer wondered if the incident was much different from the experience of disrobing for gym class,” wrote Robert Barnes in the Washington Post today. “Justice Anthony M. Kennedy affirmed his deep concerns about illicit drugs. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed at times on the edge of exasperation with her all-male colleagues. And Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. searched for a way to make the issue go away.”

So, at what point can a search be considered unreasonable? The amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” 

Where was the probable cause in this case—and at what point can a 13 year-old-girl give permission for a full-body search? While prescription drugs are an increasing problem among American teens, there certainly is a better way to go about curbing the habits than violating and humiliating girls.

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