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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Teenage Student in School Strip-Search Case

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June 25—The Supreme Court voted 8-1 that a teenage student’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the Safford Middle School when she was strip-searched in an attempt to locate prescription-strength ibuprofen. The school district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and school officials suspected Savana Redding of harboring pills after a schoolmate implicated her.

To investigate the accusations, the vice principal ordered the girl, then thirteen, to his office, where he initially searched her backpack and found nothing. He then proceeded to take her to the nurses’ office, where the nurse told her to remove her pants and shirt and when they still found nothing, they ordered her to move her bra “to the side” and to stretch the elastic waistband of her underpants.

In the Court’s opinion, the school’s search of the girl’s backpack and outer clothing was permissible and consistent with their 20-year precedent that a school may perform searches based on reasonable suspicion. However, they stated that the school officials went “too far” when they asked her to remove her underwear because it was “excessively intrusive”. While the Court ruled that the school officials could not be held financially liable in a lawsuit for the search, the justices ruled that the school district itself may be held liable and sent the case back to the lower courts to complete litigation on that issue.

Justice Thomas was the sole dissenting vote on the question of the school board’s immunity, stating that he found the search legal and that the Court had previously given school officials “considerable leeway” under the Fourth Amendment in school settings. Justice David Souter, perhaps writing one of his final opinions as a Supreme Court Justice, wrote that the school district exceeded the Constitution’s limits because of the lack of “facts that pointed to Savana” being “any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs of their quantity” as well as the lack of “any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear.”