Eighth-grader Savana Redding was scared and confused when an assistant principal searching for drugs ordered her out of math class, searched her backpack and then instructed an administrative aide and school nurse to conduct a strip search.
"I went into the nurse's office and kept following what they asked me to do," Savana, now 19, recalls of the incident six years ago that she says still leaves her shaken and humiliated. "I thought, 'What could I be in trouble for?' "
That morning, another student had been caught with prescription-strength ibuprofen and had told the assistant principal, Kerry Wilson, that she'd gotten the pills from Savana. The nurse and administrative assistant, both women, were alone with Savana in the nurse's office when they asked the girl to take off her shoes and socks, then her shirt and pants. The two women then asked Savana to pull open her bra and panties so they could see whether she was hiding any pills. None was found.
Drug searches, along with drug tests for students in athletics and other extracurricular activities, have become common in schools across the nation. But the search of Savana at Safford Middle School on Oct. 8, 2003, ignited a legal dispute that has landed before the U.S. Supreme Court — and could transform the landscape of drug searches in public schools.
Tuesday, the nine justices will hear Safford officials' appeal of a lower court decision that said the administrators violated Savana's constitutional rights and should be held financially responsible.
Attorneys for the Safford school district, about 80 miles east of Tucson in the Pinaleño Mountains, portray the school as "on the front lines of a decades-long war against drug abuse among students" and defend the search of Savana as necessary.
They echo the concerns of administrator groups nationwide who say increasingly younger students are experimenting with drugs and are abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
They cite a 2006 Office of National Drug Control Policy report that said more than 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs in 2005 and that youths ages 12-17 abused prescription drugs more than any other illicit drug except marijuana.
If the Supreme Court upholds the search, it will give administrators broad discretion on drug searches across the board.
"If they decide that this was justified, then anything goes," says Sarah Redfield, a Franklin Pierce Law Center professor who follows court rulings on student searches.
Calling the ibuprofen a "relatively harmless medication," Redfield says that "this was not a search for a weapon or potential threat. If they do say you can do this one, I can't imagine what search won't be allowed."
Yet, if the court strikes it down and also holds school administrators financially responsible, as Savana Redding and her mother want, the decision could produce a new wariness among administrators.
Francisco Negrón, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, which is siding with the Safford officials, says if the high court holds district officials liable it will restrain administrators who need flexibility to deal with problems.
"I don't think it (a strip search) is the preferred method," Negrón says, "but it may be in certain circumstances."
The case, coming to the justices a day after the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, occurs in a broader context of schools trying to balance student freedom with discipline. In some cases, administrators are resorting to "zero-tolerance" rules that impose strict punishments for a variety of transgressions.
"After Columbine, schools became more rigid," Redfield says. "But we did have some backlash against zero-tolerance policies, and there are now less absolute policies in schools."
The next phase of student searches and discipline could depend in part on how the court rules in Safford Unified School District v. Redding.
Defining students' rights
In 1985, the Supreme Court for the first time specifically applied the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches to students, in a case involving a New Jersey freshman whose purse was searched after she was caught smoking in a bathroom.
The justices upheld the search, yet emphasized that students have legitimate expectations of privacy and judges should balance schools' interest in enforcing rules to protect all students with individual students' privacy rights.
Since then, the court has heard few challenges to student searches. Cases that have come before the justices during the past two decades have involved general random searches for drugs, not situations in which individuals were targeted.
In 1995 and 2002 rulings, the Supreme Court upheld drug testing of urine — considered a type of "search" — for students involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
In those cases, the justices in the majority emphasized the importance of deterring student drug use.
Safford officials take that tack in their arguments against April Redding, who sued on behalf of her daughter.
In Savana's case, officials say, they were aware of problems with drinking and drug abuse at the middle school and had a tip that Savana might have unauthorized prescription drugs.
Phoenix lawyer Matthew Wright — who represents the school district and Wilson along with school nurse Peggy Schwallier and administrative assistant Helen Romero — said in his legal brief that administrators were suspicious of Savana Redding from the start of the school year because they detected the smell of alcohol around a small group of students that Savana was among at a school dance.
Savana's mother contends the school is saying such things to try to justify the strip search. She notes that her daughter was an honor student who was never disciplined.
Wright counters in his brief that "her assertion should not be misread to infer that (Savana) never broke school rules, only that she was never caught."
When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled 6-to-5 against the Safford officials, it expressed skepticism about the student tip that Savana had pills and said, "At minimum, Assistant Principal Wilson should have conducted additional investigation to corroborate (the) 'tip' before directing Savana into the nurse's office for disrobing."
Wright declined requests for interviews with school officials. In an e-mail to USA TODAY, he wrote: "In our estimation, much of the public discussion of and reflexive reaction to the case has stemmed from a superficial understanding of the facts."
In arguing for wide latitude for administrators to conduct drug searches, Wright told the justices in court briefs that schools need "flexibility to respond swiftly … to protect students and maintain order. Rarely will that flexibility be needed more than when school officials confront the threat of drug abuse."
The U.S. Justice Department, charting a middle course, says in a court brief that the search of Savana did not satisfy the standards of the high court's 1985 ruling because Wilson and the other school officials lacked "reasonable suspicion" that any pills would be hidden in the girl's underwear or on her body.
Yet, the department also says school officials should not be held financially responsible because it was not clear the search was unconstitutional. Separately, Justice Department lawyers endorse the school officials' concern about students possessing pills, saying, "Many illegal drugs, such as Ecstasy, come in pill form, and it is often difficult to distinguish those pills from legitimate medication."
The National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators side with Safford officials, noting that recent reports, including from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, highlight an "alarming trend with respect to prescription and (over-the-counter) drug abuse — precisely the kind of trend to which educators are highly attuned."
They say the 1985 case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. failed to set a clear standard for what steps school officials may take when searching for drugs.
"Now more than ever," they add, "schools are in the forefront of addressing dangers to our youth, including their growing abuse of prescription drugs."
'They are dangerous policies'
Among those sympathetic to Savana Redding's point of view is Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group that advocates a more moderate approach to drug searches and penalties.
"We think the school went way beyond what it needed to do for what was at issue: ibuprofen," Krane says. "We can only imagine what it would do for an illegal drug such as marijuana."
Krane insists that intrusive searches are counterproductive to administrators' goals, especially with students who might be seeking someone to talk to about possible drug abuse. "They need to be able to go to someone in authority, but zero-tolerance policies don't foster trust," Krane says. "The intentions may be well and good, but they are dangerous policies."
The National Association of Social Workers — joined by the National Education Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children — sides with April Redding in a court filing. "Social science research demonstrates that strip searches can traumatize children and adolescents and result in serious emotional damage," they say, citing studies in educational and legal journals.
Carolyn Polowy, lawyer for the social workers association, says in an interview that adolescents — typically shy and awkward about how they look — are particularly sensitive to being forced to expose their bodies.
"We're sympathetic with the schools, but a strip search is sort of the capital punishment of searches," Polowy says. "It should be rare, if at all."
Redding's lawyer, Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union, emphasizes the trauma to a teenage girl told to take off her clothes at school.
"A child's 'private parts' are not subject to observation by school officials without significant justification," Wolf says in his filing to the justices. Wolf says in an interview that none of the information school officials had should have led them to think Savana was hiding pills in her underwear.
During an interview in the small home she shares with her mother, an aunt and her aunt's family, Savana says she was especially shy about her body because she is overweight. As a middle-schooler, she said, she never wore tank tops or shorts.
Now that her case has become so public, she has heard from hundreds of people, mostly students expressing support, many writing research papers on school searches. She is taking some classes at a community college and trying her hand at creative writing. After the strip search, Savana never returned to Safford Middle School. She transferred to other schools but never obtained her high school degree.
She hopes to pass a GED test and become a counselor.
As for the search in the nurse's office, she often wonders whether she should have protested rather than follow the school officials' orders.
Says Savana: "I think about it every day."