Was School Strip-Search Legal?

A student strip-searched for drugs when she was in eighth grade took her case to a federal appeals court on Wednesday, arguing through a lawyer that school officials had violated her constitutional rights by overzealously enforcing a strict policy against alcohol, narcotics – and, in her case, Ibuprofen.

Savana Redding says she was "confused" and "ashamed" after the officials in Safford, Ariz., suspected her in 2003 of giving other students prescription Ibuprofen pills and ordered her to expose her breasts and pelvic area during a search in the school nurse's office. She denied having any pills, and none were found. Her mother later filed on her behalf a federal lawsuit claiming the search was unreasonable and therefore illegal.

"A strip search, particularly of an adolescent, is a grave invasion of privacy and should be reserved for emergency situations," Andrew Petersen, one of Redding's lawyers, said in a written statement. "The misguided actions of these school officials must not become the status quo in our nation's schools."

But a lawyer for the school district insisted that there were ample grounds for the search.

"When it comes to drugs and weapons," Matthew Wright said, "school districts just can't take the chance of not going forward and being sure."

The case is one of dozens that have recently challenged public schools on where to draw the line between the privacy rights of students and the need to keep drugs and violence out of the classroom. Courts have generally upheld school strip searches only when they were necessary to avoid a severe health or safety threat. But laws banning or strictly limiting such searches exist in seven states: California, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Wednesday's argument was the third round in a legal fight that has been going on since 2004. On March 15, 2005, a U.S. district judge ruled in favor of the school district without a trial. Last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld that ruling by a vote of 2-1. In January, the full court of appeals agreed to review the case, and it heard oral arguments Wednesday. A decision is not expected for at least several months.

According to court documents, the dispute started in October 2003, when a student at Safford Middle School in Safford, Ariz., told the vice principal that Redding, then 13, and her friends were bringing drugs to school. A week later, the student showed the vice principal a pill that he said was from Redding's friend. The pill turned out to be prescription-strength Ibuprofen.

A recently adopted school policy prohibited all drugs on school grounds, including any "prescription or over-the-counter drug" like Ibuprofen, except when specifically permitted by the school. The vice principal asked Redding's friend about the pill, and she said Redding had given it to her.

The vice principal then hauled Redding out of class for questioning. After she denied knowing anything about the pills, he asked if she would agree to be searched, and she said she would. The vice principal looked in her backpack, found nothing and then sent her to the nurse's office.

"I was just like, did I do something wrong?" Redding recalls. "I was thinking, if I don't do this [go to the nurse's office], they're going to think that I did do something wrong, and I'll get into more trouble."

While the nurse watched, a female secretary had Redding strip to her underwear, pull her bra to the side and her panties out at the crotch and expose her breasts and pelvic area. After no pills appeared, Redding got dressed.

Redding says she didn't return to class but sat in the vice principal's office and called her mother to pick her up. She was afraid to tell her mom on the phone what had happened, she recalls, because "the secretary was listening" and "I was like really ashamed, like it was my fault." A friend later spilled the beans about the search, and Redding says her mom "was more mad than I was. I felt really stupid."

The incident was so humiliating that Redding says she couldn't return to school for months. "Everyone knew what had happened, and they were talking about me," she recalls. "I got really nervous, developed ulcers and started puking."

Eventually, Redding transferred to another school, and today, at age 17, she is still trying to make up for lost time at what she describes as an alternative high school.

"I remember how much I enjoyed school," she says. "I won all kinds of certificates, I was on the honor roll, I was doing pretty good. And I had never been in trouble before."

"I would have felt better if they had called my mom" before doing the strip search, she says.

Wright, the lawyer for the school district, says the school's strict drug policy is still in effect. He is not aware of any specific rules on strip searches but stresses the duty of schools "to closely supervise students and provide a safe environment." As for the strip search of Redding, he says it was based on "reasonable grounds."

"Remember," he says, "this was prescription strength Ibuprofen."

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