Steve Chapman

Public schools are filled with eager, fresh-faced youngsters, and prisons contain many rough-looking adults with uninviting personalities. But put aside that difference and you find some important similarities between the two places -- government-run facilities where individuals are held for a specific number of years without their consent, at the mercy of their custodians.

For years, the Supreme Court has been doing its best to further blur the distinction by giving public-school officials the same powers as the warden of San Quentin. So it was a mild surprise last week to learn there are some abridgments of freedom and invasions of privacy inflicted on children that the justices will not tolerate.

That's the good news for youngsters. The bad news is unless an administrator makes you take off your clothes, you're probably out of luck.

One day in the fall of 2003, a middle-school student in Safford, Ariz., was caught with contraband ibuprofen, which she said she had gotten from Savana Redding. The 13-year-old Savana was called to the office, where she denied knowing anything about the pills and agreed to a search of her belongings.

When it turned up nothing, an administrative assistant took her to the nurse's office and told her to remove her jacket, socks and shoes. Still no pills.

That would have been the perfect moment for a sudden burst of common sense, inducing the school officials to admit defeat and let the girl get back to algebra. But the needed epiphany did not come to the adults. They ordered Savana to take off her shirt and pants -- a step that also proved unavailing.

Were they done? No, they were not. In their relentless quest for illicit Advil, the officials refused to let considerations of modesty be an impediment. They insisted that Savana pull her bra and underpants away from her body to prove she was not hiding pills there. Again, they got nothing.

Last week, though, they got a rebuke from the Supreme Court. It has given principals and teachers great latitude in imposing control on children. But even justices who were indulgent with past government intrusions gagged at the image of officials peeking into an adolescent's most private areas.

Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg don't agree on many things. But they and six other justices (Clarence Thomas being the exception) joined in a decision that rejected abusing public-school students in the name of protecting them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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