WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's decision Thursday striking down the strip search of an eighth-grade girl for prescription-strength ibuprofen requires schools nationwide to weigh more carefully how intrusively they search for drugs.
By an 8-1 vote, the justices ruled that school officials in a rural Arizona district violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Savana Redding when they forced her to take off her clothes after an unverified tip that she had the pain relief pills. The court emphasized the difference between a routine search of a backpack and a search that exposes a student's private parts.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
The decision, which differs from signals the justices sent during oral arguments in April, also departs from a recent trend giving administrators wide latitude to search for drugs in schools.
Writing for the court, Justice David Souter said an official must have a "reasonable suspicion of danger" regarding the drugs sought and a belief they could be hidden in a student's underwear before making "the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts."
Matthew Wright, lawyer for the Safford school district, predicted the decision would have a "chilling effect" on administrators responding to threats of drugs. Francisco Negron, lawyer for the National School Boards Association, said the decision could be confusing for school officials, who typically lack formal training in drugs yet would have to consider whether the contraband they seek is dangerous enough to do to a strip search.
Savana Redding, who was 13 at the time of the search and is now 19, said, "I'm so glad that they recognized that my rights were violated. I don't want this to happen to anyone else." Her lawyer, Adam Wolf, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case, added, "Today's ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones."
In October 2003, after Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson heard from a student that Redding might have ibuprofen, he asked a school nurse and administration assistant, both women, to search Savana in the nurse's office. They asked her to take off her shirt and pants, then to pull out her bra and underpants to see whether she was hiding any pills.
No pills were found. Savana's mother, April Redding, sued, saying school officials breached Savana's rights under the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches. A lower U.S. appeals court ruled for Redding and said Safford officials were financially responsible for harm to her.
In affirming that her rights were violated, Souter said a strip search requires officials to have an "indication of danger (and) reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear."
Souter was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. Dissenting Justice Thomas said the decision allows judges "to second-guess" officials trying to ensure student safety.
By a separate vote of 7-2, the court said that because rulings in this area of the law have not been clear, Safford officials are shielded from financial responsibility for their actions. Stevens and Ginsburg dissented from that part of the ruling in Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding.
During oral arguments April 21, many justices voiced more sympathy for school administrators than for Redding. Several, including Souter and Roberts, appeared open to arguments that administrators need considerable leeway to look for drug abuse. Ginsburg was most forceful on the other side. In a concurring opinion Thursday, Ginsburg emphasized the humiliation Savana endured, including being forced to sit on a chair outside Wilson's office even after the search found no pills.