Pubdate: Fri, 26 Jun 2009
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Page: A2
Copyright: 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Jess Bravin, Staff Writer
Referenced: The ruling
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court rapped school officials for 
strip-searching a 13-year-old girl in a fruitless hunt for ibuprofen, 
ruling that an overzealous investigation based on scant evidence 
violated the Fourth Amendment ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures."

The 8-1 vote provided a victory for student rights. In 2007, the 
justices went in the opposite direction, ruling that a school 
campaign to discourage drug abuse outweighed a teenager's First 
Amendment right to mock such efforts.

In the latest case, the justices ruled that the school's effort to 
keep drugs off campus don't justify what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 
called "abusive" treatment of an innocent honor student, Savana 
Redding, who later said the search was "the most humiliating 
experience" of her life.

The court cited social-science literature showing that strip searches 
can cause adolescents "serious emotional damage."

The opinion by Justice David Souter exempted the assistant principal 
who ordered the search from liability, finding that it might not have 
been clear to him that his action was unconstitutional. The justices 
left open the possibility that the school district in Safford, Ariz., 
could be liable for the violation.

Review court decisions in the 2008-2009 terms video Court Rules Strip 
Search Was Unconstitutional 2:30

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that school officials violated the Fourth 
Amendment ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures" when they 
strip-searched a 13-year-old girl. The decision was a surprising 
victory for student rights, reporter Jess Bravin says.

Justice Souter's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and 
Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito--who all 
endorsed the 2007 decision limiting student free-speech rights when 
it came to drug use. Justice Stephen Breyer also signed the majority opinion.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Ginsburg wrote separate opinions 
saying they would have upheld the federal appeals-court ruling that 
left the assistant principal exposed to liability.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, as he has before, took the 
strongest position against student rights and in favor of school 
administrators' authority.

The case arose after another Safford Middle School student was found 
with several pills in her possession indicated that Ms. Redding 
supplied her. Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson searched Ms. Redding's 
backpack and, after finding nothing, had two female school employees 
search her clothing.

Stripped to her underwear, Ms. Redding was forced to shake out her 
bra and panties so that anything hidden therein would fall out, "thus 
exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree," Justice Souter 
wrote. She was detained for an additional two hours before being sent 
back to class. Ms. Redding's mother filed suit.

The school district defended the strip-search as part of its 
aggressive campaign to eradicate drug abuse. From the Archives

* Class Struggle: Should Schools Permit Searching of Students For 
Weapons, Drugs? (May 30, 1984) * Students May Be Searched if School 
Has 'Reasonable Grounds,' High Court Rules (Jan. 16, 1985)

Recognizing the need to maintain control on campus, Justice Souter 
wrote that school officials need only hold a "reasonable suspicion" 
of wrongdoing before searching students, a lower threshold than 
"probable cause," which applies in ordinary circumstances. Mr. 
Wilson's suspicion was reasonable, the court found, and that was 
grounds enough to search Ms. Redding's backpack and outer garments.

But the strip-search was another matter, Justice Souter wrote, citing 
social-science research showing that teenagers' "adolescent 
vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure."

Justice Souter observed that the evidence against Ms. Redding was 
weak, there was no specific reason to believe she had contraband 
stashed in her underwear, and the medication involved was relatively 
harmless--400 mg ibuprofen pills, equivalent to two Advil tablets. In 
combination, "these deficiencies fatal to finding the search reasonable."

The case initially suggested a gender divide on whether 
strip-searching a pubescent girl is "unreasonable" under the Fourth 
Amendment. At oral argument in April, several male justices seemed 
puzzled at Ms. Redding's humiliation over displaying her body to 
adult inquisitors.

"Why is this a major thing, to say, 'Strip down to your 
underclothes,' which children do when they change for gym?" Justice 
Breyer asked at the oral argument.

The court's only woman, Justice Ginsburg, interjected, noting that 
Ms. Redding wasn't merely stripped to her underwear, but had to shake 
her bra and panties out. Justice Ginsburg's perspective apparently 
influenced Justice Souter's majority opinion.

"Changing for gym is getting ready for play; exposing for a search is 
responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers and 
fairly understood as so degrading" that several school districts, 
including the nation's largest, New York City, have banned them 
outright, the court said.

For generations, the court has recognized that students retain some 
constitutional rights when they attend public school. In a 1943 
decision striking down a law requiring recitation of the Pledge of 
Allegiance, Justice Robert Jackson wrote that public schools must 
respect students' constitutional rights, lest youth "discount 
important principles of our government as mere platitudes."

But the court also has recognized, as Justice Abe Fortas wrote in a 
1969 case upholding students' rights to wear black armbands to 
protest the Vietnam War, that local officials generally are entitled 
"to prescribe and control conduct in the schools."

In recent years, the court has been tilting that balance toward 
administrators. Two years ago, the court ruled that the schools' 
interest in fighting drug abuse allowed it to suppress student speech 
that seemed to trivialize the issue -- in that case, a banner a 
student unfurled outside campus reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr