Court review of strip search to test limits of school drug policy

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."

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