There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who think it's perfectly reasonable to strip search a 13-year-old girl suspected of bringing ibuprofen to school, and the kind who think those people should be kept as far away from children as possible. The first group includes officials at Safford Middle School in Safford, Ariz., who in 2003 forced eighth-grader Savana Redding to prove she was not concealing Advil in her crotch or cleavage.
It also includes two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, who last fall ruled that the strip search did not violate Savana's Fourth Amendment rights. The full court, which recently heard oral arguments in the case, now has an opportunity to overturn that decision and vote against a legal environment in which schoolchildren are conditioned to believe government agents have the authority to subject people to invasive, humiliating searches on the slightest pretext.
Safford Middle School has a "zero tolerance" policy that prohibits possession of all drugs, including not just alcohol and illegal intoxicants but prescription medications and over-the-counter remedies, "except those for which permission to use in school has been granted." In October 2003, acting on a tip, Vice Principal Kerry Wilson found a few 400-milligram ibuprofen pills (each equivalent to two over-the-counter tablets) and one nonprescription naproxen tablet in the pockets of a student named Marissa, who claimed Savana was her source.
Savana, an honors student with no history of disciplinary trouble or drug problems, said she didn't know anything about the pills and agreed to a search of her backpack, which turned up nothing incriminating. Wilson nevertheless instructed a female secretary to strip search Savana under the school nurse's supervision, without even bothering to contact the girl's mother.
The secretary had Savana take off all her clothing except her underwear. Then she told her to "pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, exposing her breasts," and "pull her underwear out at the crotch and shake it, exposing her pelvic area." Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between drug warriors and child molesters.
"I was embarrassed and scared," Savana said in an affidavit, "but felt I would be in more trouble if I did not do what they asked. I held my head down so they could not see I was about to cry." She called it "the most humiliating experience I have ever had." Later, she recalled, the principal, Robert Beeman, said, "he did not think the strip search was a big deal because they did not find anything."
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a public school official's search of a student is constitutional if it is "justified at its inception" and "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." This search was neither.
When Wilson ordered the search, the only evidence that Savana had violated school policy was the uncorroborated accusation from Marissa, who was in trouble herself and eager to shift the blame. Even Marissa (who had pills in her pockets, not her underwear) did not claim that Savana currently possessed any pills, let alone that she had hidden them under her clothes.
Savana, who was closely supervised after Wilson approached her, did not have an opportunity to stash contraband. As the American Civil Liberties Union puts it, "There was no reason to suspect that a 13-year-old honor-roll student with a clean disciplinary record had adopted drug-smuggling practices associated with international narcotrafficking, or to suppose that other middle-school students would willingly consume ibuprofen that was stored in another student's crotch."
The invasiveness of the search also has to be weighed against the evil it was aimed at preventing. "Remember," the school district's lawyer recently told ABC News by way of justification, "this was prescription-strength ibuprofen." It's a good thing the school took swift action, before anyone got unauthorized relief from menstrual cramps.