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Supreme Court Rules that School’s Strip Search of Teen Girl Violates 4th Amendment Rights

June 25, 2009

In April, I wrote about a case headed for the Supreme Court in which a young teen girl was strip searched because the school suspected (based on another teen’s allegation) that she might have prescription-strength ibuprofen on her. The school personnel made her, essentially, shake out her bra and panties. They did not call a parent or guardian first, much less have one present. I described in the previous post some of the reasons why I found this act appalling.

The Supreme Court has now issued its opinion on the matter [PDF], and ruled that the search of the 13-year-old girl’s underwear violated her Fourth Amendment rights (against unreasonable search and seizure).

However, those who executed the search will not be held liable. Justice Souter in the Court’s opinion writes that “because there is reason to question the clarity with which the right was established, the official who ordered the unconstitutional search is entitled to qualified immunity from liability.”

I am somewhat disturbed by the suggestion in the opinion that the reasonableness of the search was determined in part by the strength of drugs of suspicion (although none were actually found). Souter’s opinion states:

In sum, 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. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.

I’m sure this is a legal distinction, but if any child of mine was ever strip searched by school administrators, I really wouldn’t care if they found a bag of heroin in her panties – I’d still be outraged at the school for requiring my child to expose her genitals to a bunch of office wonks. I’m appalled at the idea that if some doofy principal hears a rumor that some kid has harder drugs than ibuprofen, that it’s open season for adolescent strip searches. The Court argues that if the suspected “danger” is greater, the search is reasonable, but where is that defining line, and how useful is it when we’re relying on hearsay to make the determination?

Meanwhile, Justice Thomas dissented, holding that the search did not violate the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. He also laments the majority opinion as a “deep intrusion into the administration of public schools” – you know, because schools should be free to strip search young girls on a whim and a rumor without interference. He also writes that “…school officials retain broad authority to protect students and preserve ‘order and a proper educational environment’ under the Fourth Amendment.” Hmph. Somehow I don’t equate order and a proper educational environment with “might get strip searched based on what some kid said.” Thomas also complains that this won’t be the last case of drugs hidden in underwear (even though this wasn’t the case at all), because the decision “announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school.” Good grief. I don’t think Justice Thomas’s imagination is a place I ever want to be.

Where I agree with Thomas is where he calls the rationale about the amount of “danger” a test that is “unworkable and unsound.” And yet, where he errs on the side of “let’s allow searches for everything, then!” I lean toward, “let’s not have assistant principals strip searching our schoolchildren, ever!” I don’t think that’s so unreasonable.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. onesillyme permalink
    June 25, 2009 9:29 pm

    I was angry when the school searched my daughter’s backpack and jacket because the security guy with “the nose” thought he smelled marijuana on her. What she smelled of was the dentist office, where she had been right before I dropped her off at school. Had they stripped her, I would have had to hurt some one and I don’t think a jury would have convicted me.

  2. Daye Gardenia permalink
    June 27, 2009 9:50 am

    Although I am a home educator, I find this ruling quite troubling. (Unlike many of my colleagues, I have empathy for parents and children who must deal with the sometimes frustrating agenda and problems of public schools.) I am concerned that it will not put an end to strip searches but simply make them justifiable under certain circumstances.

    What I am not surprised about is Justice Thomas’s opinion, mostly because I believed in Anita Hill’s testimony about him long ago. I believe this bloke has some problems and should never have been allowed on the court.

  3. June 29, 2009 3:21 pm

    I am very happy with this ruling. No child should be strip searched in school. It is a place where they are supposed to feel safe. I can only imagine the humiliation that she must have undergone, simply because of hearsay.

    Schools are becoming like prisons, with police enforcements everywhere. It is not exactly an environment which teaches them what it is like to live in a free and open society.

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