A thirteen year old honor student was strip searched at her public school based on the uncorroborated statement of a middle school classmate that she may have been in possession of extra strength Ibuprofen (which is basically a stronger Advil or Motrin that requires a prescription but is commonly used to treat pain and inflammation). According to a recent appellate court decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, public school officials violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights when they strip searched her looking for the Ibuprofen.
In this case, the girl, Redding, was a 13 year old honor student in 8th grade at a public middle school in Arizona. She had no prior disciplinary record and no history of involvement with drugs. Another girl was caught at school with one over the counter Naproxen pill (a common pain reliever) and one extra strength Ibuprofen (which requires a prescription). After being caught with the pills, the girl said that Redding gave them to her. There was no other direct evidence that this accusation was accurate. The school officials pulled Redding from her class and asked her if she knew anything about the pills. Redding denied knowledge of the pills or how the other girl obtained them. Redding then consented to be searched. The school officials searched her backpack and found nothing. A nurse was called who then took Redding into a room and asked her to remove her clothes, pull back her bra to expose her breasts and pull up her underwear to expose her pelvic area. Redding complied, and no pills were found. Redding subsequently sued the school district and the school officials involved in the search.
After an initial decision that the school was justified in the search, the appellate court ruled that the search violated Redding’s Fourth Amendment rights. Pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, individuals have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. What constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure depends on the circumstances of the case. Students in public schools retain their Fourth Amendment rights, but they are modified to consider the special circumstances of the school environment. In other words, public school officials are often given a little more leeway to search students and their belongings to accommodate the particular need to keep children safe from drugs and crime.
However, the Redding case is an illustration of public school officials drastically crossing over the boundaries of reasonableness. A search of a student in public school must follow two conditions: 1) it must be justified at its inception and 2) it must be reasonable in its scope considering the circumstances that justified the search. In other words, public school officials must have a reasonable basis to believe a search will result in evidence that the student has violated, or is violating, the law or school policy. If so, then the search must not excessively intrude upon the student in light of the student’s age and sex and the nature of the alleged infraction.
Here, as the court explained, the search did not meet either criterion. The search was based on the statement of another classmate who was found with the pills. There was no other direct evidence that Redding possessed any pills. It would set a bad precedent if school officials could strip search students based on the uncorroborated statement of another classmate. Secondly, the search went well beyond the bounds of what was reasonable in light of the circumstances. It is hard to understand how these school officials thought it was appropriate to strip search a 13 year old honor student with no prior disciplinary record in the hopes of finding extra strength Advil. Fortunately, the appellate court agreed. Everyone can appreciate the need to, and difficulty involved in, making sure kids are safe at school. However, at some point common sense has to prevail over ignorance.