A Bare Minimum of Student Privacy

The Supreme Court finally sees a difference between students and prisoners


Public schools are filled with eager, fresh-faced youngsters, and prisons contain many rough-looking adults with uninviting personalities. But put aside that difference and you find some important similarities between the two places—government-run facilities where individuals are held for a specific number of years without their consent, at the mercy of their custodians.

For years, the Supreme Court has been doing its best to further blur the distinction by giving public-school officials the same powers as the warden of San Quentin. So it was a mild surprise last week to learn there are some abridgments of freedom and invasions of privacy inflicted on children that the justices will not tolerate.

That's the good news for youngsters. The bad news is unless an administrator makes you take off your clothes, you're probably out of luck.

One day in the fall of 2003, a middle-school student in Safford, Ariz., was caught with contraband ibuprofen, which she said she had gotten from Savana Redding. The 13-year-old Savana was called to the office, where she denied knowing anything about the pills and agreed to a search of her belongings.

When it turned up nothing, an administrative assistant took her to the nurse's office and told her to remove her jacket, socks, and shoes. Still no pills.

That would have been the perfect moment for a sudden burst of common sense, inducing the school officials to admit defeat and let the girl get back to algebra. But the needed epiphany did not come to the adults. They ordered Savana to take off her shirt and pants—a step that also proved unavailing.

Were they done? No, they were not. In their relentless quest for illicit Advil, the officials refused to let considerations of modesty be an impediment. They insisted that Savana pull her bra and underpants away from her body to prove she was not hiding pills there. Again, they got nothing.

Last week, though, they got a rebuke from the Supreme Court. It has given principals and teachers great latitude in imposing control on children. But even justices who were indulgent with past government intrusions gagged at the image of officials peeking into an adolescent's most private areas.

Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg don't agree on many things. But they and six other justices (Clarence Thomas being the exception) joined in a decision that rejected abusing public-school students in the name of protecting them.

The Fourth Amendment, they noticed, says individuals shall not be subject to "unreasonable searches and seizures," and this search was flagrantly unreasonable. The mere possibility of finding pills in underpants is not enough, wrote Justice David Souter, to "make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts."

School administrators might be forgiven for not knowing that. After all, the Supreme Court had previously allowed them to force students to undergo drug testing as a condition of participating in any extracurricular activity. Making students who have done nothing wrong produce a urine sample under the monitoring of a teacher, it insisted, was "not significant" as a breach of privacy.

The court had also permitted schools to search a kid's locker, backpack, and purse on even modest suspicion that some trivial school rule had been violated.

Justice John Paul Stevens complained that under these decisions, "a student detained by school officials for questioning, on reasonable suspicion that she has violated a school rule, is entitled to no more protection under the Fourth Amendment than a criminal suspect under custodial arrest." The Constitution's privacy protection, he said, has become "virtually meaningless in the school context."

Stevens did not exaggerate. Even in this case, the court was willing to tolerate making a 13-year-old girl strip to her underwear. It was the "exposure of intimate parts," not the exposure of everything else, that caused the justices to bridle. But if a more dangerous item had been sought or if there had been reason to think she was actually hiding a pill in her bra, the majority indicated, the search might have been perfectly acceptable.

So there's still a difference between the rights we afford students and the rights we afford prison inmates. Just not a very big one.



NEXT: Bubbles Jackson: Alive, Well, But Too Violent to Go to Jacko's Funeral (Wherever it will be)

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  1. After watching a “Jaywalking” greatest hits clip from the old Tonight Show, a friend of mine was lamenting that the government has failed in educating our children.

    I quickly informed him, that they had not failed. In fact, they had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams!

    As for the SC, I can’t believe Thomas actually dissented! They’ll eventually get it the way they want it – don’t worry.

  2. Did you deliberately choose a picture without the nerdy guy or did you engage in a little Stalinesque action and photoshop him out?

    For a magazine called “Reason”, you sure seem to identify with the jds, jocks, goths, and preps a lot more than the geeks like you ought.

    Please post your response to this question to youtube.

  3. If strip searches where allowed at Shermer High School, then I would bet someone might find a door hinge and a baggy of pot. The Breakfast Club as we know it would not exist.

  4. Oh, it’s Steve Chapman. Leaving (photoshopping?) the nerdy guy out of the photo makes perfect sense now.

    Though Virginia Postrel would have advised a picture with Anthony Michael Hall still in it.

  5. Yo, Fuck Jaybird, it’s too early to drink

  6. Go back to 1920, Prohibitionist.

    I read my Constitution often enough to notice the 21st Amendment is in there.

  7. Has that guy be burned to death as per my suggestion yet? And no more suggestions of setting innocent porcupines alight!

  8. They ruled that the officials who did the search are immunized, didn’t they? Did they rule on whether the school system could be sued? Because if not, then this decision wouldn’t be much to celebrate, because how would someone vindicate their rights?

    I’m seriously asking, I don’t know.

  9. MNG,

    I think the reasoning is that the principal and nurse didn’t know they didn’t have the power to strip search a 13 girls for an Advil.* Presumably, the next time it happens they can be sued.

    We’ll see.

    *Why the question had to go up to SCOTUS to be puzzled out is a whole other issue. Why no other court felt they had the standing to rule on such a simple question is beyond my comprehension.

  10. this decision wouldn’t be much to celebrate

    This isn’t much to celebrate. As has been noticed on previous post, this decision will be limited to its facts. If the pigs were looking for something scary (say BC skunkbud) , SCOTUS would have gone along with it. Fuck, they would authorize the issue of speculums to each principal. A pretty sad indictment on our culture which is absolutely insane. Again, as has been pointed out before, we have a government that would rather see someone dead than under the throes of addiction.

    Yo, Fuck Jaybird, it’s too early to drink

    It is never too early to start drinking. I started 90 minutes ago. Given this culture, having a conscious, and the impotence of reason to make change, who wouldn’t want to be fucked up 24/7?

  11. They ruled that the officials who did the search are immunized, didn’t they? Did they rule on whether the school system could be sued? Because if not, then this decision wouldn’t be much to celebrate, because how would someone vindicate their rights?

    I thought I read that the Supremes kicked it back to the lower courts to decide if the School District can be sued while granting immunity to the individuals at the school itself.

  12. MNG,

    The justices said that Safford Middle School officials violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches with their treatment of Savana Redding. The court ruled that the officials could not be held financially liable but left it to lower courts to decide if the school district could. I believe there is a case that has been filed but was awaiting this judgement. By the way, Ginsburg and Stevens dissented on that part of the ruling — they thought the school officials could be sued personally, that it was unreasonable for the school officials to think they had a legal right to strip search a 13 year old girl.

    From a practical standpoint, I can see Thomas’s dissent making sense — you are telling students exactly where to hide contraband. But I think the invasion of privacy on this level is a greater harm.

  13. Is there any contraband a student can have that is worth having the principal search him on a school’s level of suspicion? If it’s actually something seriously illegal and not just violating school policy, they should call the police and the parents and let them deal with it.

  14. I like the scam the gubermint runs…can’t sue the screw ups who raped the constitution. Just sue the the school district and get the money from innocent taxpayers, includeing yourself. Yeah, if I can borrow a line from “Calculated Risk” – hoocudanode (who could have known)that stripsearching a teen age girl for ADVIL (man, that is dangerous stuff)is unreasonable.

  15. From a practical standpoint, I can see Thomas’s dissent making sense.

    Those female 13 year olds astute in the subtleties of constitutional law, will pick up on that in an instant.

    I am so sick of this “message” shit. And so what if that is the message? I can live with the risks to civilization associated with the idea that a woman’s pussy is off limits to pigs.
    Yeah, I know, if this were the law, Karl Rove would show up on Fox talking about how female genitalia armed with nuclear warheads posed a risk to “the security of the United States.”

  16. Ah yes, the dreaded “snuke” rears it’s stinky head again.

  17. Thanks sixstring, SF and others. I just don’t have time to read the case right now.

  18. “SNUKE” = thread winner!!!

  19. What amazes me is that more people aren’t pissed off as hell about the whole incident in the first place. Seems to me part of the difference between those who are outraged and express the sentiment that they would go to the school and kick the principle’s ass to the curb versus those who say the girl broke the rules and the school was within its rights tends to be that the former are parents while the latter are not.

    Every time I read the facts, I start fuming. WTF made these officious fuckheads think it was o.k. to strip-search a 13-year-old girl? Dammit, that pisses me off.

  20. “WTF made these officious fuckheads think it was o.k. to strip-search a 13-year-old girl?”

    Probably because they got away with strip searching 13 year old boys without any problems. They decided to Title IX the searches so girls can have the same treatment and benefits from the nanny state as the boys. Yay fairness!

  21. I would have been ready to kick that principles ass. Fortunately my daughter knows when to keep her mouth shut.

  22. What the fuck are your officials thinking?

  23. What do we care anyway? We don’t have a 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th amendment but I better STFU before we don’t have a 1st.

  24. If the gov’t parasites who are immune from punishment for molesting this girl had a 100 year old depiction of a naked 15 year old, they’d go to prison … for the picture.

  25. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets.

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