A student who had to pull her bra away from her body so school officials could check whether she was hiding drugs must have been humiliated and frightened by the unreasonable search, her lawyer told the North Carolina Supreme Court on Monday. An attorney for the state argued the search was minimally invasive.
The state's high court heard oral arguments in the case involving a student known only as T.A.S _ unidentified in court because she was 15 years old when the "bra-lift search" occurred at the Brunswick County Academy in 2008. The justices will decide whether the search violated the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches.
"It is unconstitutional for our daughters to be treated this way by the public schools of North Carolina," attorney Geeta Kapur told the state's highest court.
Sandra Robinson, the principal of the alternative school for students with disciplinary and other problems, called for the searches after a general tip from other students that prescription pills were coming into the school. She got no more details on what kind of pills or who was bringing them, but knew students usually would hide drugs and other contraband in their underwear, including bras, and their socks and tongues of their shoes.
During the search, students passed through metal detectors, then waited in the lunchroom before being brought one-by-one to a classroom to be searched. The female students had to pull out their shirts and place their thumb underneath the bra to pull it out, allowing any hidden drugs to fall out. Attorneys said there's no evidence the boys participated in a similar search.
Only the principal testified at trial, and she didn't witness the search, which occurred in front of three adults, two of them men.
Assistant Attorney General LaToya Powell said the search was minimally invasive because no skin was shown. "By doing this, absolutely no body parts were exposed," she said.
During the search, a white powder identified as Percocet and drug paraphernalia were found on the student. The student asked a trial judge to prevent the evidence from being used, but the judge refused. She pleaded guilty in March 2009 to two drug-related misdemeanors.
A divided state Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of the student, finding the search was "degrading, demeaning and highly intrusive." The state appealed that decision. The state Supreme Court decision is expected to affect 1.5 million public school students.
Powell said the search was not unreasonable because there was "a compelling governmental need" that outweighed the rights of individual privacy, she said. The school's primary responsibility "was to promote the health and safety of students," she said.
Although she said in her brief that students at an alternative school have a lower privacy right than those at other schools, Powell told the justices that wasn't the case. Under questioning by Justice Mark Martin, she said students at alternative schools have the same rights as those at traditional schools.
Kapur argued that two men should not have watched the search because it that violates the Brunswick County school board policies. "We don't know what happened in that room," she said. "We don't know if the two men saw her breasts or positioned themselves to see her breasts."
Justice Paul Newby asked if the issue of exposure was contested on appeal. It was not, Kapur said.
But in the end, she said: "Who was looking ... whether anyone saw any private parts ... is irrelevant to Fourth Amendment rights" against unreasonable searches.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc