WASHINGTON – A 13-year-old girl says she will never be able to forget the humiliation of school administrators searching her underwear for prescription-strength ibuprofen pills. Now the Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether the search went too far.
The Safford, Ariz., Unified School District is appealing a federal appeals court decision that allows Savana Redding to sue the Safford Middle School officials who searched her based on the accusation of a fellow student.
School officials argue that the search was reasonable and justified because pills had been found on campus and another student had linked them to Redding. But Redding's lawyers say school officials violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches.
Redding is now a 19-year-old college freshman living in her hometown of Safford in rural eastern Arizona.
The Supreme Court will also issue opinions Tuesday.
A 1985 Supreme Court decision that dealt with searching a student's purse has found that school officials need only reasonable suspicions, not probable cause. But the court also warned against a search that is "excessively intrusive."
A schoolmate had accused Redding, then an eighth-grade student, of giving her pills. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Vice Principal Kerry Wilson took Redding to his office to search her backpack. When nothing was found, Redding was taken to a nurse's office where she says she was ordered to take off her shirt and pants. Redding said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. No pills were found.
Redding says school officials did not have reasonable grounds to believe she was hiding pills in her underwear, and says the pills did not pose a public health threat serious enough to justify a strip search. School officials say they did not violate Redding's rights and say courts should defer to school officials' judgment in situations involving potential drug abuse on school grounds.
A federal magistrate had dismissed the lawsuit Redding and her mother April brought, and a federal appeals panel agreed that the search didn't violate her rights. But last July, a full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the search was "an invasion of constitutional rights."
The court also said Wilson could be found personally liable.
If the court finds the search was unconstitutional, it will have to decide whether school officials can be held financially liable by determining whether it should have been clear to them in October 2003 that the search was illegal.
The case is Safford Unified School District v. April Redding, 08-479.