The New York Times
Strip-Search of Girl
Tests Limit of School Policy
By ADAM LIPTAK,
nytimes.com from the Web, March 24, 2009
SAFFORD, Ariz. -- Savana
Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with
butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her
to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade.
An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her
of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of
the pills is as strong as two Advils.
The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms.
Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to
pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me
open my legs and pull out my underwear.”
Ms. Redding, an honors student, had no pills. But she had a furious mother
and a lawyer, and now her case has reached the Supreme Court, which will hear
arguments on April 21.
The case will require the justices to consider the thorny question of just how
much leeway school officials should have in policing zero-tolerance policies for
drugs and violence, and the court is likely to provide important guidance to
schools around the nation.
In Ms. Redding’s case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,
in San Francisco, ruled that school officials had violated the Fourth
Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches. Writing for the majority, Judge
Kim McLane Wardlaw said, “It does not require a constitutional scholar to
conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of
“More than that,” Judge Wardlaw added, “it is a violation of any known principle
of human dignity.”
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, dissenting, said the case was in some ways “a close
call,” given the “humiliation and degradation” involved. But, Judge
Hawkins concluded, “I do not think it was unreasonable for school officials,
acting in good faith, to conduct the search in an effort to obviate a potential
threat to the health and safety of their students.”
Richard Arum, who teaches sociology and education at New York University, said
he would have handled the incident differently. But Professor Arum said
the Supreme Court should proceed cautiously.
“Do we really want to encourage cases,” Professor Arum asked, “where students
and parents are seeking monetary damages against educators in such
school-specific matters where reasonable people can disagree about what is
appropriate under the circumstances?”
The Supreme Court’s last major decision on school searches based on individual
suspicion — as opposed to systematic drug testing programs — was in 1985, when
it allowed school officials to search a student’s purse without a warrant or
probable cause as long their suspicions were reasonable. It did not
address intimate searches.
In a friend-of-the-court brief in Ms. Redding’s case, the federal government
said the search of her was unreasonable because officials had no reason to
believe she was “carrying the pills inside her undergarments, attached to her
nude body, or anywhere else that a strip search would reveal.”
The government added, though, that the scope of the 1985 case was not well
established at the time of the 2003 search, so the assistant principal should
not be subject to a lawsuit.
Sitting in her aunt’s house in this bedraggled mining town a two-hour drive
northeast of Tucson, Ms. Redding, now 19, described the middle-school cliques
and jealousies that she said had led to the search. “There are preppy
kids, gothic kids, nerdy types,” she said. “I was in between nerdy and
One of her friends since early childhood had moved in another direction.
“She started acting weird and wearing black,” Ms. Redding said. “She
started being embarrassed by me because I was nerdy.”
When the friend was found with ibuprofen pills, she blamed Ms. Redding,
according to court papers.
Kerry Wilson, the assistant principal, ordered the two school employees to
search both students. The searches turned up no more pills.
Mr. Wilson declined a request for an interview and referred a reporter to the
superintendent of schools, Mark R. Tregaskes. Mr. Tregaskes did not
respond to a message left with his assistant.
Lawyers for the school district said in a brief that it was “on the front lines
of a decades-long struggle against drug abuse among students.” Abuse of
prescription and over-the-counter medications is on the rise among 12- and
13-year-olds, the brief said, citing data from the Office of National Drug
Given that, the school district said, the search was “not excessively intrusive
in light of Redding’s age and sex and the nature of her suspected infraction.”
Adam B. Wolf, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents
Ms. Redding, said her experience was “the worst nightmare for any parent.”
“When you send your child off to school every day, you expect them to be in math
class or in the choir,” Mr. Wolf said. “You never imagine their being
forced to strip naked and expose their genitalia and breasts to their school
In a sworn statement submitted in the case, Safford Unified School District
v. Redding, No. 08-479, Mr. Wilson said he had good reason to suspect Ms.
Redding. She and other students had been unusually rowdy at a school dance
a couple of months before, and members of the school staff thought they had
smelled alcohol. A student also accused Ms. Redding of having served
alcohol at a party before the dance, Mr. Wilson said.
Ms. Redding said she had served only soda at the party, adding that her accuser
was not there. At the dance, she said, school administrators had confused
adolescent rambunctiousness with inebriation. “We’re kids,” she said.
The search was conducted by Peggy Schwallier, the school nurse, and Helen
Romero, a secretary. Ms. Redding “never appeared apprehensive or
embarrassed,” Ms. Schwallier said in a sworn statement. Ms. Redding said
she had kept her head down so the women could not see that she was about to cry.
Ms. Redding said she was never asked if she had pills with her before she was
searched. Mr. Wolf, her lawyer, said that was unsurprising.
“They strip-search first and ask questions later,” Mr. Wolf said of school
Ms. Redding did not return to school for months after the search, studying at
home. “I never wanted to see the secretary or the nurse ever again,” she
In the end, she transferred to another school. The experience left her
wary, nervous and distrustful, she said, and she developed stomach ulcers.
She is now studying psychology at Eastern Arizona College and hopes to become a
Ms. Redding said school officials should have taken her background into account
before searching her.
“They didn’t even look at my records,” she said. “They didn’t even know I
was a good kid.”
The school district does not contest that Ms. Redding had no disciplinary
record, but says that is irrelevant.
“Her assertion should not be misread to infer that she never broke school
rules,” the district said of Ms. Redding in a brief, “only that she was never
Ms. Redding grew emotional as she reflected on what she would have done if she
had been told as an adult to strip-search a student. Dabbing her eyes with
a tissue, she said she would have refused.
“Why would I want to do that to a little girl and ruin her life like that?” Ms.