In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of school-based strip searches, determining that a strip search for ibuprofen had violated a student’s constitutional right to privacy. A different student was found with prescription-strength ibuprofen in school and said she received it from Savannah Redding. Redding was a quiet, 13-year-old honor student at the time of the incident. No drugs were found as a result of the search of Redding, which she called “the most humiliating experience of my life.” Justice David Souter wrote the majority opinion for the 8-1 decision. The Court held that a strip search was far too intrusive for a violation of school policy. Further, the court determined that while schools have a legitimate responsibility to keep drugs off campus, strip searches are not a legitimate means to do so. Justice Souter observed that the evidence against Redding was weak, there was no specific reason to believe she had contraband stashed in her underwear, and the medication involved was relatively harmless–400-mg ibuprofen pills, equivalent to two Advil tablets.
Based on the accusation by her classmate, school officials first checked Redding’s backpack and outer clothes. The court felt these two searches were reasonable, but determined that the school made “a quantum leap” in taking the next step, which involved stripping Redding to her underwear and asking her to shake them out so that her breasts and pelvic area were exposed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was especially troubled by the trauma a young girl would experience after enduring this type of intrusion at the hands of a trusted official. In making its decision, the Court exempted from liability the assistant principal who ordered the search, asserting that perhaps he did not know his actions were unconstitutional and thus it was a good-faith exception.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. He asserted that school officials acted logically in searching Redding’s underpants. He also stated that decision in the case virtually ensured more students would hide drugs in their underwear, as they would now deem it the safest location for contraband.
Prior to the ruling in Redding, lower courts had heard numerous cases on strip searches of students, sometimes affirming the procedure and at other times finding it unconstitutional. For instance, a strip search of a female high school student for drugs was found to be lawful based on several factors, including a tip from another student, an incriminating letter found in a classroom, a teacher’s report of strange behavior, and her own father’s concern about her drug use.
Because the Court’s ruling addressed only strip searches for prescription drugs, it left open the question of whether strip searches for other contraband, such as illicit drugs and weapons, were constitutional. In September 2009, the fall after Redding was decided, an administrator at Atlantic High School in Atlantic, Iowa, was placed on suspension for authorizing strip searches of five female students. The searches were conducted after a student reported $100 was missing from a purse in her locker. No money was found. Iowa law seems to prohibit strip searches, but some argued there were circumstances under which a strip search could be acceptable. On February 25, 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa filed suit requesting the school district make available records indicating what, if any, punishment was imposed on the two school officials who conducted the searches.
- Administrator on leave after school strip search. (2009, September 9). KCCI. http://www.kcci.com/Administrator-On-Leave-After-School-Strip-Search/-/9357770/7329520/-/73p8eez/-/index.html
- Barnes, R. (2009). Student strip search illegal. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/25/AR2009062501690.html
- Bravin, J. (2009, June 26). Court faults strip-search of student. The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124593034315253301.html