Supreme Court ruling:
Can schools strip search students for drugs?

 

by Alan Shapiro


To the Teacher:

The 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.





Student Reading 1:
A student drug search


Savana 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.

School 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.

Wilson 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 nothing.

Wilson 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.

They found no pills. Redding said she was so humiliated by what had happened that she never returned to school. (www.washingtonpost.com, 6/26/09)

Savana's 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, which states:

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.

A 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 v. Redding.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What would be an "unreasonable" search, in your opinion? A reasonable search? What makes the difference?

3. What do you understand by a "probable cause" for a warrant to search "persons, houses, papers, and effects"?

4. 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.



Student Reading 2:
The Supreme Court rules

School officials' search of Savana's backpack and outer clothes was reasonable, the Supreme Court ruled in their June 25,2009, decision.

But, 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."

Acting 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.

"A 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 and pockets.

Justice 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 environment….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."

The 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.

A 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)

The 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, 6/25/09)

"There 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 fast."

As 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."

In 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.


For discussion

What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?




For writing

A. 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.

B. Summarize in our own words why Justice Thomas dissented from this decision.


For discussion

1. Ask individual students to outline one of Justice Souter's points about the Fourth Amendment violation and then one of Justice Thomas' opposing points.

2. What is district lawyer Wright's objection to the majority decision? General counsel Negrón's?

3. Do you support the Supreme Court decision? Why or why not?


For inquiry

  • Does your school have a drug policy? If it does, what are its details?
  • Does the school permit searches? If so, what are the rules for them?
  • Are these rules reasonable? Why or why not?
  • If the school does not have a drug policy, why not?
  • How can students find answers to these and any other questions they have about school drug policy?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.

 

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