The Supreme Court ruled today that school officials' strip search of a then-13-year-old Arizona teen suspected of possessing a painkiller violated the girl's constitutional rights, despite the school district's zero-tolerance policy for drugs.
The court said, however, that school officials are protected from personal liability in the case.
The ruling is a partial victory for Savana Redding, who had been summoned from her middle school classroom and was asked to strip down to her underwear as school officials searched for prescription strength ibuprofen.
The decision could redefine student privacy rights and outline important guidelines for school officials as they seek out dangerous contraband, like drugs, weapons or alcohol.
An 8-1 majority of the Court found that the search was unconstitutional. Justice David Souter, writing for the majority said, "Savana's subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating. … Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion."
"The strip search of Savana Redding was unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment," the court ruled.
The Court emphasized that the intrusiveness of the search was not justified because Savana was not suspected of carrying dangerous drugs. "The Fourth Amendment places limits on the official, even with the high degree of deference that courts must pay to the educator's professional judgment."
Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissent, arguing the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Thomas wrote, "By deciding that it is better equipped to decide what behavior should be permitted in schools, the Court has undercut student safety and undermined the authority of school administrators and local officials."
The Court ruled 7-2 that the school officials were protected from having to pay Savana monetary damages, saying that though the search was unconstitutional, school officials "are nevertheless protected from liability through qualified immunity."
Justice Ginsburg, the sole female on the court, caused a stir in a recent interview when she questioned whether her male colleagues could fully embrace a young girl's reaction to such a search, wrote that the school officials treatment of Redding was "abusive, an and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it."
When Savana Redding was asked to come to the principal's office, she remembers walking down the hallway wondering why.
"I had never been in trouble," said Savana, then a 13-year-old honor student in the small town of Safford, Ariz. "I thought maybe something good was happening."
But when she walked in the office, she ran headlong into school officials' zealous efforts to protect students from drugs. Suspecting Savana, school officials subjected her to an invasive strip search -- without ever calling her mother.
That search set the stage for the significant Supreme Court showdown.
In an interview earlier this year, Savana, now 19, said her case -- being subjected to a strip search for what amounted to two Advils -- shows guidelines are necessary.