Strip for the Principal


This month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit is scheduled to rehear a case involving an Arizona eighth-grader who was strip-searched by school administrators enforcing a "zero tolerance" drug policy. The ACLU, which today filed a brief on the student's behalf, describes the search:

Savana Redding, an eighth grade honor roll student at Safford Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, was pulled from class on October 8, 2003 by the school's vice principal, Kerry Wilson.  Earlier that day, Wilson had discovered [drugs] 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 [drugs].

After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson presented Redding with the [drugs] and informed her of her classmate's accusations. Redding said she had never seen the [drugs] 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 [drugs].

"I was embarrassed and scared, but felt I would be in more trouble if I did not do what they asked," said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident.  "The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had."

The punch line: The drugs in question were ibuoprofen pills—prescription-strength, 400-milligram pills (equivalent to a couple over-the-counter Advil caplets), but nothing anyone would or could use to get high. Then again, it's much easier to overdose on ibuprofen than on marijuana, so maybe the administrators have their priorities right.

A three-judge 9th Circuit panel did not go quite that far, but last year it did say Redding's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated by the search. The judges ruled that the vice principal had "reasonable grounds" to believe the search would discover evidence that Redding had violated the school's ban on possession of prescription drugs. They also concluded that the search was not excessively intrusive. On March 24 the full court will hear arguments urging it to reconsider.