Friday, June 26, 2009

Unreasonable school behavior smacked down

Thankfully the Supreme Court showed some common sense in the decision released yesterday ruling that a 2003 strip search of a middle-school student violated her Fourth Amendment rights. When I saw reports on this case being argued a few months ago, I thought it was outrageous and that only an idiot would think that the school officials acted reasonably and legally. Well, the Court's ruling was an 8-1 decision -- which validates my thinking because Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenting voter, is an idiot.

Six years ago Savana Redding was an eighth-grader in Arizona when a classmate was found to have some prescription-strength ibuprofen. The classmate told school administrators that Redding had some of the pills and the girl was searched. When a look through her backpack and outer clothing turned up nothing, Redding -- an honor student with no disciplinary record -- was told to take off her clothes and to move aside her underwear as two female school officials looked on. No contraband was found.

Redding was understandably upset by the encounter and never returned to the school. Her mother, with the help of the ACLU, brought suit against the school district and the offending school officials. The district court agreed with the school district, but the appeals court reversed the decision and the Supremes upheld that outcome.

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution says, in part, that, "The right of the people...against unreasonable searches and seizures...shall not be violated..." In this case, I think, the school officials acted unreasonably in a couple of ways. First, what they were looking for did not meet the standard of "imminent danger." If the allegation was that Redding had a gun in her pants or a vial of anthrax, then the safety of everyone in the school would be immediately at risk. One or two ibuprofen wasn't going to bring the building down. The school's reasonable suspicion may have given them legitimate cause to search Redding's backpack and to make her empty her pockets, but not to have the teenager take her clothes off.

Secondly, the accuser was another middle-school student -- one who was in trouble and looking to shift blame or bring someone else down. If a teacher had observed Redding passing out ibuprofen to classmates then it would be reasonable to expect the school to push this to another level, but even then I think you'd want to call in the parents -- Redding's mother was not informed of what was going on -- or to follow up in some other way.

Of course, Redding might, at one point, have possessed the pills in question. I'm not vouching for her innocence. However, given the two lines of argument above, it seems clear to me that school officials exercised their authority in an unreasonable manner and subjected the girl to a humiliating experience -- one that violated her Constitutional rights. Justice John Paul Stevens -- who I admire more and more -- called the actions of the school officials "clearly outrageous conduct." Stevens went on to write that, "it does not take a constitutional scholar to know that a strip search of a 13-year-old child is a significant invasion of constitutional rights."

1 comment:

N.starluna said...

The most interesting thing about this decision is that it is an 8-1 decision. Most of the decisions coming out of the Court recently have been narrow 5-4 rulings. That it was almost unanimous sends a strong message about the limits of authority held by school officials.

The hold out was none other than Clarence Thomas, who argued in his dissent that school officials should have broad authority to act in loco parentis (meaning "in the place of parents"). Apparently Thomas believes that parents have the right to order their 13 year old daughters to strip while looking for "contraband". I wonder whether child protective services would agree.