(06-25) 18:42 PDT --
School officials violated the rights of a 13-year-old girl by strip-searching her to look for prescription-strength ibuprofen, the U.S. Supreme Court said Thursday in an unexpected 8-1 ruling that bolsters students' privacy rights.
The ruling moves most of the nation a step closer to California, where a 1988 state law prohibits school employees from conducting strip searches. The court appeared to leave the door open for the searches in some circumstances - but not when school officials are looking only for painkillers and have no evidence that a student is hiding them under her clothing.
The ruling, written by Justice David Souter, said authorities in a Safford, Ariz., middle school had grounds to search eighth-grader Savana Redding's backpack for pills, based on a fellow student's allegation that the girl was supplying them, but not to have a nurse search under her bra and underpants.
"What was missing ... was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Redding was carrying pills in her underwear," Souter wrote in what may have been his last significant opinion. He is retiring after the 2008-09 term ends Monday.
Although school officials have more leeway than police to conduct searches, Souter said the Constitution's Fourth Amendment still requires educators to show a reasonable suspicion that a student is concealing contraband.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in a vehement dissent, said courts should stop interfering with school officials and leave them free, under a centuries-old standard, to act with the same authority as a parent to search or discipline students.
Such a constitutional interpretation is needed "to keep the judiciary from essentially seizing control of public schools," Thomas said. He said parents who object to a school's treatment of their children can ask their school board or legislature to change the rules, "send their children to private schools or home-school them, or they can simply move."
The ruling came from a court that has construed students' rights narrowly in some areas, including speech, and appeared ready to take the same step for drug-related searches at a hearing in April.
Souter told a lawyer during the session that he would "rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search ... than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime." Others made similar comments, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court's only woman, told a USA Today reporter later that some of her male colleagues didn't seem to understand the situation from a 13-year-old girl's perspective.
"I wanted to make sure no other person would have to go through this," Redding, now 19, said Thursday in a statement released by her lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union. In an earlier court affidavit, she said the search was "the most humiliating experience I have ever had."
The case dates to October 2003, when the assistant principal at Safford Middle School pulled Redding out of class, brought her to his office and showed her four ibuprofen pills of 400 mg each, twice the dose of an over-the-counter Advil. School rules banned the pills on campus.
Redding denied she was distributing the pills and agreed to a search of her backpack, which found nothing. The administrator then sent her to the office of the school nurse, who told her to remove her clothes and pull out her bra and underpants for a further search, which again found no pills.
Her mother then sued the district and everyone involved in the search. Thursday's ruling upheld a decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that a strip search of a student for an everyday painkiller crosses constitutional boundaries.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that individual school officials were immune from damages because the girl's rights had not been clearly established at the time of the search. But the justices said Redding could seek damages against the school district if she can show the search was conducted under district policy.
Read the ruling
The ruling in Safford Unified School District #1 vs. Redding, 08-479, can be read at links.sfgate.com/ZHMM.
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you Connecticut DCF Watch for this story..
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