Safford Unified School District v. April Redding (2009)

In one of the biggest victories for student rights in two decades, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on June 25, 2009 that the strip search of 13-year-old Arizona student violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The sole dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas.

In October 2003, Savana Redding was identified by another student at Safford Middle School, which had a “zero tolerance” policy for drugs, as the source of prescription-strength Ibuprofen pills. Savana was told to go to the office of the assistant principal where she was asked about the pills, each one the equivalent of two Advils.

She said she knew nothing about them. The assistant principal and an administrative assistant then searched her backpack and found nothing.

At this point she was taken to the school nurse’s office where her clothes were searched for pills. When nothing was found in her outer garments, she was told to strip to her bra and underpants, which she then had to pull to the side and shake. No pills were found.

Savana was so humiliated by this experience that she never again returned to the school. Her mother, April Redding, filed suit against the school officials. Eventually, with the help of the ACLU, the case reached the Supreme Court. Justice Souter delivered the majority opinion.

Applying the ”reasonable suspicion” standard laid down in the Supreme Court’s 1985 T.L.O. ruling, he found that the school officials had the right to search her backpack and outer clothes. But the search of her underwear was “excessively intrusive.”

“What was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana,” Justice David Souter wrote, “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.”

The Justices did not rule that strip searches were never legal in school. Instead, they found that there had to be a “reasonable suspicion of danger” and reasonable notion that underwear was being used to hide evidence of wrongdoing for such a search to be constitutional.

The Court gave the school officials who conducted the search qualified immunity – barring them from being sued – on the grounds that the law regarding such searches was not clear at the time they searched Savana, since different courts around the country had ruled in different ways on the matter of strip searches. The case was sent back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether the school district as a whole could be held liable.

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In 2005 a federal immigration judge threw out deportation charges against four undocumented Phoenix high school students on grounds that they had been subjected to racial profiling and an illegal search and seizure at the Canadian border.  They were among a group of nine high-achieving Latino students who had traveled to New York as part of a school field trip to participate in a prestigious international solar-powered boat competition.  When a teacher enquired whether they could cross to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls using their high school identification cards, the students were singled out and interrogated for nine hours about their legal status by US immigration officials.