If you ask the average citizen whether a junior high school student should be subjected to a strip search by school administrators based on the suspicion that she possessed ibuprofen, I’m fairly confident the vast majority of people would reply
with a resounding “No”.
It is, therefore, surprising that U.S. Supreme Court case, Safford Unified School District v. April Redding, 08-479, ever came to pass.
The underlying facts in Safford are simple: Savana Redding, an eighth grader who was only13-years-old at the time of the incident in question, was strip-searched by school officials based on another student’s allegation that Redding possessed ibuprofen in violation of school policy. As part of the strip search, Redding was
asked to pull her bra and underwear away from her body, exposing her breasts and pelvic areas.
Last week, the court issued its decision in the case, holding that the actions of the school administrators were unconstitutional, but concluding that qualified immunity likely shielded them from personal liability: “In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts … 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. … We … mean … to make it clear that the T.L.O. concern to limit a school search to reasonable scope requires the support of reasonable suspicion of danger or of resort to underwear for hiding evidence of wrongdoing before a search can reasonably make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts. The meaning of such a search, and the degradation its subject may reasonably feel, place a search that intrusive in a category of its own demanding its own specific suspicions.”
The holding did not surprise me. But everything else about the case did.
What surprised me the most is that the school officials thought it was reasonable in the first instance to strip search a 13-year-old child who allegedly possessed a common over-the-counter medication, albeit in an amount typically not available
without a prescription.
Even more surprising is the fact that, when her parents complained and then hired an attorney, the school district and its attorneys apparently felt no need to settle the matter quietly, in light of the ridiculous actions taken by its employees.
All the more surprising is that the case actually was litigated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most surprising fact of all —even though the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision in Redding’s favor — is that the male justices on the court apparently failed to appreciate the level of distress experienced by a female student after she was strip searched by adult school administrators.
As explained by Justice Ginsberg in an unusual post-decision interview with USA Today: “They have never been a 13-year-old girl. … It’s a very sensitive
age for a girl. I don’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”
I don’t know about you, but I find that fact to be, well —surprising.
It was an extremely invasive, humiliating search based largely on the allegations of another student whose motivations are unknown.
That many of the male members of our highest court —populated mainly by, not surprisingly, men —could not comprehend the level of distress experienced by a young adolescent after a baseless strip search is surprising at best, and perplexing at worst.