Can schools strip search students for drugs?
case of Savana Redding's strip search made headlines around the country and raises
questions about school drug policies. The first student reading below provides
the major details of the case. The second outlines the Supreme Court's ruling,
a dissent from it, and some issues raised by officials about the case. Discussion
questions and other activities follow.
A student drug search
Redding, 13, was wearing black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink
T-shirt. She will probably always remember that because it was the day Assistant
Principal Kevin Wilson pulled her out of her Safford, Arizona, middle school classroom
and took her to his office.
authorities had discovered another student with prescription-strength ibuprofen
and said Savana gave it to her. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug also used
in non-prescription medications like Advil. It is used for such ailments as headaches,
back pain, arthritis and toothaches. It was banned under a "zero tolerance"
drug policy at Savana's school. Only students who had advance permission were
allowed to have such pills at school.
showed Savana some prescription and non-prescription drug pills. He told her he
had information that she was giving pills to other students. She denied it and
agreed to have her backpack searched. Wilson and Helen Romero, an assistant, found
then had Romero take Savana to the office of the school nurse, Peggy Schwallier,
to search her clothes. The two school officials told her to remove her outer clothing,
then to take her bra out and shake it as well as to pull the elastic on her underpants,
in the process exposing her breasts and pelvic area.
found no pills. Redding said she was so humiliated by what had happened that she
never returned to school. (www.washingtonpost.com,
mother sued Wilson, Romero and Schwallier as well as the school district. The
suit alleged that the strip search violated Savana's rights under the Fourth Amendment,
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
effects, against unreasonable searches and
seizures, shall not be violated,
and no warrants shall issue
but upon probable cause, supported by oath or
and particularly describing the place to be searched, and
the persons or things to be seized.
district court ruled against Savana Redding, but an appeals court held that her
Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The school district appealed that decision
to the Supreme Court in a case known as Safford Unified School District #1
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
What would be an "unreasonable" search, in your opinion? A reasonable
search? What makes the difference?
What do you understand by a "probable cause" for a warrant to search
"persons, houses, papers, and effects"?
Conduct a pair-share dialogue in which two students discuss the following questions,
giving two to three minutes for each to speak to the following questions: Were
Savana's Fourth Amendment rights violated when Wilson and Romero searched her
back pack? Why or why not? Were her Fourth Amendment rights violated when Romero
and Schwallier conducted a strip search of her? Why or why not? (See in the high
school section of www.teachablemoment.org "Engaging
Your Class Through Groupwork" for a description of a pair-share dialogue.
The Supreme Court rules
officials' search of Savana's backpack and outer clothes was reasonable, the Supreme
Court ruled in their June 25,2009, decision.
writing for the majority in an 8-1 decision, Justice David Souter declared that
administrators at Safford Middle School made a "quantum leap" in going
further. "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."
on another girl's accusation that Savana had ibuprofen equal to two Advil tablets,
school administrators went too far, Souter wrote. There was not "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." Vague
suspicion did not justify an "embarrassing, frightening and humiliating search."
In short, the administrators' strip search was "unreasonable" and violated
the Fourth Amendment.
number of communities have decided that strip searches in schools are never reasonable,"
Souter wrote, "and have banned them no matter what the facts may be."
The New York City Department of Education is among those taking that position.
And in Montgomery County, Maryland, searches are permissible only in outer clothing
Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter. He wrote: "Judges are not qualified
to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in the school
.Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills
in her undergarments. Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announced
the safest places to secrete contraband in school."
lawsuit against the school district will proceed, but not Redding's claim against
Assistant Principal Wilson, his assistant Romero, or the school nurse Schwallier,
because the Supreme Court judged that in 2003 the law governing searches was too
unclear to permit such a suit.
school district lawyer, Mathew Wright, said that the decision "offers little
clarification" about when school drug searches are allowed, and that it might
have dangerous consequences. The decision makes it difficult for school officials
"to protect students from the harmful effects of drugs and weapons on school
campuses," he said. (New York Times, 6/25/09)
general counsel for the National School Boards Association, Francisco Negrón
Jr., said he was glad that the Supreme Court had found that school officials had
acted "in good faith." But, reported the Washington Post, Negrón
said the decision did not provide clear guidelines about how specific the accusation
must be, or how dangerous the alleged drug, before school officials employ such
an intrusive search. "I think there will be more litigation,' he said. (www.washingtonpost.com,
is no need here either to explain the imperative of keeping drugs out of schools
or to explain the reasons for the school's rule banning all drugs, no matter how
benign," Justice Souter wrote. "Teachers are not pharmacologists trained
to identify pills and powders, and an effective drug ban has to be enforceable
the Fourth Amendment indicates, police must usually have "probable cause"
for a search, but the standard for school officials is not as tough. They need
have only "a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing."
the Redding case, "The content of the suspicion failed to match the degree
of the intrusion," particularly given "the nature and limited threat
of the specific drugs" involved.
questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
Summarize in your own words why Justice Souter, writing on behalf of eight
of the nine justices, declared that Safford school administrators violated the
Fourth Amendment in conducting a strip search of Savana Redding.
Summarize in our own words why Justice Thomas dissented from this decision.
Ask individual students to outline one of Justice Souter's points about the Fourth
Amendment violation and then one of Justice Thomas' opposing points.
What is district lawyer Wright's objection to the majority decision? General
Do you support the Supreme Court decision? Why or why not?
your school have a drug policy? If it does, what are its details?
the school permit searches? If so, what are the rules for them?
these rules reasonable? Why or why not?
the school does not have a drug policy, why not?
can students find answers to these and any other questions they have about school
lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We
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