Supreme Court Hears Case of Teen's 'Embarrassing' School Strip Search

Supreme Court showdown over student privacy rights, school drug policy.

April 21, 2009— -- When Savana Redding was summoned from her middle school classroom 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 now has set the stage for a significant Supreme Court showdown that could redefine student privacy rights and outline important guidelines for school officials as they seek out dangerous contraband, like drugs, weapons or alcohol.

Savana, now 18, says 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 gong 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 in a recent interview with ABC News.

School Strip Search: No Parental Notification

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 now has taken the case to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments today.

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. "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."

Schools' Duty to Protect Students?

But school officials say 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."