As reported here, in Phaneuf v. Fraikin, 04-4783-cv, the Second Circuit addressed the interesting issue of whether a strip search of a student for marijuana that was conducted by the student's mother at the behest of school officials was supported by reasonable suspicion. The facts of this case were summarized in the article as follows:
The incident that sparked the lawsuit happened on June 7, 2002, as Plainville High School students were about to leave for their senior class picnic. School officials conducted a search of student bags and, in Ms. Phaneuf's purse, uncovered a pack of cigarettes--a violation of school policy.
Another student, Michele Cyr, also reported to physical education teacher Cindy Birdsall that she had heard Kelly telling others that she was planning to hide marijuana in her pants.
In reaching its decision, the Court considered the application of the Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" standard to searches of students:
(T)he accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial
need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools
does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on
probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating
the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the
reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.
(A) two-part test (is required) to determine the reasonableness of a student search.
First, the search must be “justified at its inception"....Second, the student strip search must be “reasonably related in scope to the
circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” (Internal citations and quotations omitted).
After considering the first part of the two-prong test, the Second Circuit concluded that the search was not justified at its inception:
Here, school officials point to four factors they contend created the reasonable suspicion
required to justify the search: (1) the tip from a fellow student, (2) Phaneuf’s past disciplinary
problems, (3) the suspicious manner of her denial, and (4) the discovery of cigarettes in her
purse. We conclude that these four factors—considered singly and together—were insufficient.
I'm inclined to agree. This was an extremely invasive, humiliating search based largely upon the allegations of another student whose motivations were unknown. While I recognize the important need for teachers and administrators maintain order, they went too far in this case. A strip search was simply uncalled for.
I would be interested in learning of the District Court's decision on the issue of qulified immunity upon remand of the case.