Published January 13, 2015
By Lis WiehlFOX News Legal Analyst/Former Federal Prosecutor
Middle school used to have a certain routine: class, recess, and homework. And when it came to disruptions, kids were sent to the principal's office where punishments were meted out based on relevant facts. It was all kind of like a mini-trial where the principal acted as a prosecutor, judge, and jury. And in most situations the worst punishment was detention, or maybe even a day's suspension.
That's the way middle schools operate, right? Wrong. In Arizona, apparently 13-year-old girls can be forced to remove almost all of their clothing, and strip searched, at the mere hint of hearsay against them.
Picture this: one minute you're in math class, and the next minute you're strip searched in the nurses office, feeling humiliated and degraded. That's what happened to Savana Redding in 2003, a then eighth grade honors student at Safford Middle School in Arizona. Redding was strip-searched by two female school officials after a fellow student told the school administration that Redding gave her prescription ibuprofen pills.
Most parents in the local community were outraged, and so Redding took her case to the courtroom. Today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments and decide what procedures should be in place with regard to searches in public schools.
This case has already been heard in the lower courts. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the eighth grader. The court found that her constitutional rights were violated and the school district should be held financially responsible. Of course, the Supreme Court will have the final say in this matter and its decision will likely become a landmark case in the limits of public school district search and seizure matters.
How does this case compare to other Supreme Court rulings in this sphere? Well, public schools are allowed more leeway in conducting searches on its students than police officers are given in the public sphere. The main reason for this is their integral need to protect students' safety and accountability in such a vulnerable place. In 1980, the Supreme Court approved school administrators' ability to search student lockers without a search warrant if there were "reasonable grounds" for doing so, and the search was not "excessively intrusive." The top court has also allowed random drug testing of high school athletes at all high schools across the nation since 1995. Clearly certain constitutional liberties are sacrificed in order to ensure safety in our public schools, but where do we draw the line? Schoolyard safety and constitutional liberties do not need to be mutually exclusive.
I hope the Supreme Court will use a sharpie to draw the line this time, because eighth graders like Savana Redding should not be subject to flagrant violations of her most basic constitutional rights.