At the end of its 2008-2009 term, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case which implicates the constitutional rights of students with regard to searches and may impact the way in which schools investigate suspected misconduct.  In Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding, the Court heard an appeal concerning a 13 year-old female 8th grade student from Arizona who was strip-searched by school officials who were looking for prohibited prescription medications. 

In October 2003, Savana Redding was escorted from her math class by the assistant principal.  At the school office, the assistant principal confronted her with a school planner containing knives, lighters and a cigarette and some banned prescription pills.  Savana admitted the planner was hers, but said that she had lent it to another student and that all of the contraband belonged to someone else.  The assistant principal told her that he had received a report that she was giving pills to other students, which she denied.  The assistant principal obtained Savana’s consent to search her backpack for contraband, but nothing was found.  The male assistant principal instructed a female administrative assistant to take Savana to the school office, where her outer clothing was searched by the administrative assistant and the female school nurse.  When nothing was found, Savana was asked to remove her clothing, and then to pull her bra and underwear away from her body to demonstrate that there were no pills hidden in them.  She complied with the requests, and no pills were found.

Savana’s mother filed suit in federal court and argued that Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures were violated by the strip search.  The District argued that no violation occurred because the school officials had reasonable suspicion that Savana was providing prohibited medications to fellow students, and the Court agreed.  A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that finding.  On appeal for rehearing, however, the full Ninth Circuit held that the search was not justified and was unconstitutional.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Since 1985, the law concerning search and seizure rights of students within the school setting has rested upon the U.S. Supreme Court decision of New Jersey v. T.L.O.  In that case, the Court held that a search of a student’s person may take place if the search is justified by a reasonable suspicion held by a school official that there are grounds to believe the student has committed misconduct, but the search is only permissible if not unnecessarily intrusive given the age or gender of the student.  This standard has been applied in Pennsylvania and elsewhere since that time, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Redding clarifies how the standard is applied.

By an 8-1 margin, the Supreme Court held that the strip search of Savana violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches.  The Court held that the Assistant Principal had a reasonable suspicion to question Savana and to search her backpack and outer clothing in response to the report that she was distributing prescription drugs, but the search should have been limited to those areas.  There had been no report that the contraband pills were being hidden in the student’s undergarments to justify the extremely intrusive search that occurred.  Further, while the risk of imminent and significant danger to students or staff might justify an intrusive search such as a strip search, the school could not show that there was any such immediate risk requiring a strip search to be conducted. 

While it is unlikely that your District has employed strip searches, the Redding case is a caution to school officials to avoid conducting strip searches of students under any circumstances unless presented with a situation where imminent risk of danger is present.  It is advisable, wherever possible, to leave all but the most basic of student searches to law enforcement personnel.

Alfred C. Maiello
Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.