Date: June 25, 2009
To: School districts in the United States
Re: Strip searching
Please do not strip your search students because you think they might have some ibuprofen.
— The U.S Supreme Court
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If there was likely to be a “duh” decision coming from the hallowed hall of justice in Washington, this was most likely to be it, and today the justices — most of them — used all of their judicial training to avoid using the word “duh.”
This is the case of Savana Redding of Arizona, who was ordered to strip and “to pull her bra out and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree,” according to the suit which made its way to the Supreme Court earlier this year. The school had a zero-tolerance policy toward pills and someone told the school officials that Redding had prescription and over-the-counter pain pills.
Let the record show nothing fell out.
“What was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear,” Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion.
And of the assistant principal’s action, Souter wrote:
“Because Wilson knew that the pills were common pain relievers, he must have known of their nature and limited threat and had no reason to suspect that large amounts were being passed around or that individual students had great quantities.”
Which is a nice way of saying, “Use your head, man.”
The 13-year-old’s constitutional rights were violated, the court says, but there’s not much she can do about it. The court ruled the school officials enjoy immunity.
Justice Ruth Ginsberg disagreed with that part of the ruling, noting the girl was not sent back to class. “Instead, he made her sit on a chair outside his office for over two hours. At no point did he attempt to call her parent. Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity.”
Justice John Paul Stevens objected to the overall decision because the court upheld the immunity of school officials. But that didn’t stop him from giving him the rhetorical back of his hand:
“(This is) in essence, a case in which clearly established law meets clearly outrageous conduct. I have long believed that “‘[i]t does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude.'”
Only Justice Clarence Thomas thought the strip search was none of the court’s business:
“This deep intrusion into the administration of public schools exemplifies why the Court should return to the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis under which ‘the judiciary was reluctant to interfere in the routine business of school administration, allowing schools and teachers to set and enforce rules and to maintain order,'” he wrote.
Which leads to the obvious question: If the court has no role in deciding whether there’s a constitutional right to prevent a 13 year old from being strip searched by an assistant principal, what is it there for?
Here’s the full ruling, which reads like a cheap novel.