Zero tolerance strip search declared illegal, but what are the implications?
Once in awhile, something defies common sense so much that even people like Justices Scalia, Alito, and Roberts can see it. Today, we found out what their limit on state-sponsored assholery is. In an 8-1 decision, the court ruled against the Arizona school that put a 13-year-old female student through a humiliating strip search in order to find over the counter ibuprofen that the girl didn’t even have. Some of us in the blogosphere were worried about this case, because some of the judges (even liberalish ones) were asking questions that seemed insufficiently aware of how humiliating a strip search can be or how ridiculous it is to forbid teenagers to have harmless over the counter pain medications or how awful it is that the school is enabling teenage bullying by allowing student “tips” to be reason enough for strip searches, with no willingness to punish kids who use this to get their enemies. But this strong majority decision inclines me to think we didn’t need to worry too much.
Clarence Thomas dissented, and the excerpts in the AP story incline me to wonder if he realized that the strip search based on a student “tip” (that was most likely an act of bullying) didn’t result in the discovery of any pills.
Thomas warned that the majority’s decision could backfire. “Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,” he said. “Nor will she be the last after today’s decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school.”
Which reads a lot like saying, “Teenagers might actually get the impression that they have a right to privacy, and adults can’t just demand that they be stripped naked at any point in time on what amounts to a whim.” Which I see as a good thing. I don’t imagine Justice Thomas would like it very much if his basic right to a little personal privacy was tossed away so cavalierly.
The question that this brings up for me, and I don’t even come close to knowing the answer, is how much sweep this decision has in terms of protecting students from some of the more tyrannical abuses of power that school officials enjoy. I wouldn’t think it has much sweep, since the case is so completely over the top in terms of abuse of power—the fact that the search was justified on a tip that was apparently not even assessed to see if it might be bullying instead of a legitimate tip, the fact that the drug in question is more harmless than a lot of other substances that get into schools (such as peanuts!), and the fact that the school officials went straight to humiliating the girl through nudity with only a quick examination of her backpack beforehand. It’s possible that all this will do is cause school officials to spend 10 more minutes of justifying the strip searches they perform, perhaps by interrogating accusers a little or bothering to do locker searches before proceeding onto the humiliation.
Even if it has more sweep, I doubt it will do much to roll back the problem of zero tolerance policies, however, which are the main problem at hand. Linking this back to Jesse’s post about discipline patterns and prejudice, it’s important to understand that in zero tolerance land, it becomes acceptable to freak out over things like a girl having Midol in her purse or some boy wears baggy pants. When anything can be treated like rock solid evidence of criminality, it becomes super easy to railroad kids that trip up the school officials’ prejudices. Not that I don’t think the school-to-prison pipeline couldn’t exist without zero tolerance, but I’m guessing it greases the wheels significantly. The irony of zero tolerance is that it’s going to be selectively enforced. It has to be. When you can blow pretty much any behavior up to make it seem criminal, either everyone is turned into a criminal or you simply focus all your attention on kids that you had your suspicions about because of their race, family’s income level, or, as in the days after Columbine, their tendency to wear black clothes and listen to weird music.