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Supreme Court Bars Student Strip Searches


Savana Redding, plaintiff in Safford Unified School District v. Redding, on the steps of the Supreme Court, Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson

Surprising 8–1 landmark decision upholds students’ Fourth Amendment rights.

If Savana Redding ever has children, she can regale them with the tale about how her courage and determination led to the most important student search case of her generation.

In the decision that bears her name, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, the Supreme Court ruled last June by an 8 to 1 vote that student strip searches are almost always impermissible. This historic ruling likely will require virtually every school district in the country to review and revise its student search policies.

When Savana was only 13 years old, the assistant principal of her middle school in Safford, Arizona, ordered that she be strip- searched in an ill-fated and unsuccessful quest to find a 400 mg tablet of ibuprofen. He’d gotten a tip from a fellow student who’d been caught with several “IBU 400s” and fingered Savana as the supplier.

As the school nurse and an administrative aide watched, the eighth-grader was forced to strip down to her bra and panties. She was then told to pull her bra to the side and pull out her underwear at the crotch, exposing her breasts and pelvic area to the two adults.

Describing Savana’s ordeal as “embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating,” the High Court declared that such an invasion of a student’s privacy is “unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

In a concurring opinion, Justices Ginsburg and Stevens called it “clearly outrageous conduct.”

The lone dissenter was the crabby Clarence Thomas. He argued for the resurrection of in loco parentis, the discredited doctrine that school officials enjoy the same authority over students as their parents and can do pretty much whatever they want.

NEA, in concert with the National Association of Social Workers and other groups, filed an amicus brief supporting Savana’s claim. The brief cited significant scientific research that strip searches of children can cause serious psychological and emotional harm, which can be both acute and long-term.

In a rare move, the Court quoted from NEA’s brief to bolster its conclusion that student strip searches are harmful and unconstitutional. Citing the brief, the Court emphasized, “[A] strip search can ‘result in serious emotional damage’ [to students].”

After the decision came down, Savana’s ACLU attorney, Adam Wolf, told NEA Today, “We greatly appreciate NEA’s support, which clearly assisted the Court in understanding the gravity of this issue and in reaching the right decision.”

The decision left a little wiggle room for school districts, however. The Court suggested that a strip search might be OK if officials have credible information that a specific student has stashed dangerous drugs or a weapon in his or her underwear. But lacking that sort of smoking gun evidence, student strip searches violate the Fourth Amendment, the Court said.

So what should a school employee do if he or she is ordered to strip-search a student? To avoid that Catch-22—the unpalatable choice between being fired for insubordination or sued for violating the Constitution—NEA members would be well-advised to work through their local Associations to insist that school districts adopt clear and lawful policies, either banning all strip searches or carefully circumscribing the conditions necessary to authorize a strip search.

As the Court noted, strip searches are “so degrading that a number of communities … have banned them” outright, including the New York City schools, where the rule is: “Under no circumstances shall a strip-search of a student be conducted.”

—Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel


Photo: Mark Wilson


Savana Redding, plaintiff in Safford Unified School District v. Redding, on the steps of the Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.

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October, 2009


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