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.
"They asked me to take off my clothes, and I did while they stood there," Savana said. "When I was finally in my underwear, I thought, 'OK, they are going to let me put my clothes back on.'"
"They just looked at me and said, 'well, now you have to pull out your bra and shake it and your underwear as well," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I really wanted to cry."
School officials were worried about reports of students using drugs and alcohol. When an eighth grade girl was found with a cigarette and pills, she pointed the finger at Savana. In the principal's office, Savana denied she had any pills. A search of her backpack turned up nothing, so the vice principal said the school nurse would conduct a strip search.
"They saw everything," Savana said of the search, conducted by the school nurse and a secretary. "It was really embarrassing. These are people that I see every day."
Savana said there was one thought going through her mind during the search: "Where's my mom?"
"I just wanted to know where my mom was and why were they doing this to me," she recalled.
But officials never called Savana's mother. When April Redding got to school that afternoon, she was horrified to learn from a student that her daughter was strip-searched.
"I am shocked that they didn't call me. I didn't know nothing about it," she said, crying. "[Savana] was very upset, emotional. She tried telling me ... what they had done to her. She was crying and telling me that she never wanted to see them people, and that she couldn't go back there.
"And it just hurt me I couldn't protect her," Redding said.
School officials saw nothing wrong with the strip search, but Redding watched as Savana, embarrassed and humiliated, refused to return to school. She couldn't handle the students talking about her.
"It wasn't like, 'hey, welcome back. We missed you.' It was just whispering -- 'that girl, she got in trouble for pills.' Everybody thought that I was a troublemaker, and I didn't do anything wrong," Savana said. "So it hurt a lot."
Savana withdrew from her friends and eventually changed schools. She later dropped out of school entirely. Redding decided to sue, arguing the search violated Savana's constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. A California-based federal appeals court sided with Redding, and found the school liable.
The school district took the case to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April.
Adam Wolf, Redding's attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union, said strip searches of children are "traumatic events" and that the case could set important new guidelines for schools.
"Never in your worst nightmare do you envision your child standing naked in front of her school officials," Wolf said in an interview earlier this year. "If the court signs off on the strip search, we could very well see more strip searches in our schools. It is a proposition that should scare every parent out there."
But school officials had contended they have a duty to find dangerous drugs.
"Most schools that engage in strip searches do it because they are acting in good faith," said Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association. "They are doing it because they feel an intense need to protect the safety of the students.
But Savana and her mother say schools can go too far -- and put students at risk.
"They keep saying that they did it to keep everyone safe. What about me?" Savana said. "They didn't keep me safe by doing that."