Court rules strip-search of 13-year old for ibuprofen unconstitutional
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that schools may not strip-search students for drugs based on an unverified tip, overturning two previous rulings.
The lawsuit was brought by the parents of Savana Redding, an eighth grade honor roll student at Safford Middle School in Safford, Arizona, who was pulled from class on October 8, 2003 by the school's vice principal, Kerry Wilson to investigate whether she had violated a school policy prohibiting bringing medication -- even over-the-counter medication -- to school.
Wilson had discovered another student earlier with prescription-strength ibuprofen -- 400 milligram pills equivalent to two over-the-counter ibuprofen pills, such as Advil -- in the possession of Redding's classmate. Under questioning and faced with punishment, the classmate claimed that Redding, who had no history of disciplinary problems or substance abuse, had given her the pills.
After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson presented Redding with the ibuprofen pills and informed her of her classmate's accusations. Redding said she had never seen the pills before and agreed to a search of her possessions, wanting to prove she had nothing to hide. Joined by a female school administrative assistant, Wilson searched Redding's backpack and found nothing. Instructed by Wilson, the administrative assistant then took Redding to the school nurse's office in order to perform a strip search.
In the school nurse's office, Redding was ordered to strip to her underwear. She was then commanded to pull her bra out and to the side, exposing her breasts, and to pull her underwear out at the crotch, exposing her pelvic area. The strip search failed to uncover any ibuprofen pills.
"The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had," said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident. "I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry."
"Common sense informs us that directing a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen, an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one, and which could have been handled by keeping her in the principal's office until a parent arrived or simply sending her home, was excessively intrusive," Wardlaw wrote, joined by Judges Harry Pregerson, Raymond C. Fisher, Richard A. Paez, Milan D. Smith Jr. and N. Randy Smith.
The court cited arguments by the National Assn. of Social Workers that strip searches of children "can result in serious emotional damage, including the development of, or increase in, oppositional behavior."
"And all this to find prescription-strength ibuprofen," Wardlaw wrote, noting that one pill has the strength of two over-the-counter Advil and might be commonly used by young women to treat menstrual cramps.
The ruling said that Assistant Principal Wilson was liable for monetary damages but that his aide and the school nurse were not because they were acting under his orders.
The ruling was applauded in a statement from the ACLU:
"Students and parents nationwide can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that adolescents cannot be strip searched based on the unsubstantiated accusation of a classmate trying to get out of trouble," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project and co-counsel in the case with the law firms Humphrey & Petersen and McNamara, Goldsmith, Jackson & Macdonald. "This ruling is a victory for our fundamental right to privacy, sending a clear signal that such traumatizing searches have no place in America's schools."