Strip Search Decision Praised by Leading Children’s Rights Experts at Columbia Law School

Strip Search Decision Praised by Leading Children�s Rights Experts at Columbia Law School

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New York, June 25, 2009 – A Supreme Court decision Thursday that found officials at an Arizona school district illegally strip searched an eighth-grader was praised by leading children’s rights and juvenile justice experts at Columbia Law School for recognizing that students have a right to privacy.
 “It’s saying this kind of search requires a more-specific suspicion of wrongdoing because we don’t want our children treated in this way,” Jane M. Spinak, the Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law, said of the 8-1 ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas cast the lone dissenting vote.
The case involved Savana Redding of Safford, Ariz., who was 13 in 2003 when she was ordered to take off her clothes and shake out her underwear as officials searched for prescription-strength ibuprofen, acting on a tip from another student. No pills were found. Soon after, her mother filed a lawsuit.
“Savana’s expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening and humiliating,” Justice David Souter wrote for the majority.
Souter said a search might have passed muster if officials had merely searched Redding’s backpack or outer clothing. But what tripped them up, said Elizabeth Scott, the Harold R. Medina Professor of Law, was the lack of danger posed by the drugs in question.
“Given these circumstances, the Court sensibly concluded that the infraction was not serious enough to justify the intrusiveness of a strip search and that the principal lacked reasonable suspicion for believing that the pills were in the girl's underwear,” Scott said.
Spinak noted the Court affirmed that a right to privacy and protection from unreasonable searches was especially important in a school setting. “It says more broadly to society this is a serious thing to do to an adolescent, to make them expose their bodies to … an adult who is in a position of power over them,” she said.
Spinak is disappointed but not surprised that the Court determined the officials who carried out the search cannot be held liable because the “established law” at the time of the search did not indicate it violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches. However, the case was sent back to the lower courts to determine whether the district is liable.
“The Supreme Court has been very deferential about giving school officials the authority to search students for drugs,” Scott said. “In recent cases, the Court has allowed blanket and random urine tests of students about which no suspicion of drug use has been raised. The Redding decision suggests that the Court is ready to limit that authority when the drugs at issue are not dangerous or illegal and the search is particularly intrusive.”
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