May 09
Lorraine Berry lives in the Fingerlakes region of New York, although it's her transplanted home. On weekends, she can be heard throughout the area, cheering on her beloved Manchester City F.C. When not writing at Does This Make Sense? or Talking Writing, she can be found hiking with her two dogs, hanging out with her two daughters, eating what her beloved Rob has cooked for her, or teaching creative writing at a small college in the area.


Editor’s Pick
MARCH 24, 2009 10:14AM

When is it Proper to Strip-Search a 13-year old? (UPDATED)

Rate: 40 Flag

Does someone want to explain to me when it might be a proper time for public school officials to strip-search a 13-year old girl?

If you've read the Times this morning, then you've seen Adam Liptak's piece on the remarkable case of Redding v. Safford Unified School District, which will be heard by the Supreme Court later this month.

The facts of the case are these: school officials suspected that Savana Redding had brought ibuprofen with her to school. The pills represented a violation of the school's "zero tolerance" policy, so, without a parent present or any type of legal representation, Ms. Redding was taken into a room with two female school employees. Ms. Redding was ordered to strip down to her underwear, and then was searched below her underwear for the missing pills.

Redding said she never brought the pills in the first place. And Redding's parents were so outraged, they brought a lawsuit against the district.  Lower courts ruled that her Fourth Amendment rights were NOT violated, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an en banc decision, reversed the lower courts' rulings. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

(Thanks to Mrs. Michaels for correcting my sloppy reading of the court documents.)

I cannot believe that the school district continues to fight this case. What it did was so obviously wrong, how can it possibly believe that it can justify its decision to strip a young woman naked over two ibuprofen tablets? AYFKM?

The Fourth Amendment protects all Americans—not just those who are white, male, and above the age of 18--from "illegal search and seizure."

The Fourth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, and precedent protect the right to privacy that is the basis for so many of the civil rights freedoms that extend to gays and pregnant women.

I keep reading one particular quotation again and again, because, quite frankly, I cannot make sense of it.

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 Control Policy.
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.

The school district is justifying its strip search because OTC medication abuse is on the rise among teens that age, but what did her sex have to do with it? If I wanted to extrapolate from what's been said here, I might guess that either the district thinks that young women are especially devious at hiding things, or they're more naturally suspect, or they lie more often. Otherwise, I can't really imagine what they're talking about. Her sex? What did her sex have to do with it?

(The whole thing reminds me of the old women who were sent into rooms with women accused of witchcraft. The older women were sent to look for the devil's mark or the witch's teat, as it was often referred to. Some physical sign (a mole, a freckle, a skin tag) that proved evidence of contact with Satan.)

I wonder what the two women who conducted the search felt? They claim to not have been aware of how upset Savana was while she was being violated by them. Do they sleep at night now, knowing that Savana spent years ashamed of what had been done to her?

You know, words of fury seem pointless. I'm hoping that a majority of Supreme Court Justices will see this for what it was: a blatant violation of Fourth Amendment rights.

Or, as one of the 9th circuit  justices on the case wrote:

 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 constitutional rights.”

“More than that,” Judge Wardlaw added, “it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity.”

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
My daughter is 14. I felt angry when I read your post, but a whole new level of horrified when I imagined my baby girl having to take off her clothes in front of her teachers. Seriously don't know if we'd recover from that one around here - daughter or parents. Definitely we'd be forever changed. Thank you for sharing this story with us.
I agree with what Judge Wardlaw said, “More than that, it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity.” --rated--
It is never appropriate. Not ever. They had nothing more than another student's word, and that is only circumstantial evidence at best. If the school felt that Redding was a danger, all they needed do was call the police and have THEM take care of the matter.
School officials need to remember that their zero-tolerance policies DO NOT give them the right to make their school into Guantanamo Junior. Students have rights.

Thumbed. I hope they get smacked down hard.
Good Lord.
I can tell you this ... not only would I have brought a case against the district, I would have brought one against the teachers who did the search and the authority that ordered it. That is the most horrific thing I can imagine. I'm so pissed off just reading it that I can't even think straight. Thanks for sharing. That statement from the district is appalling for all the reasons you mentioned. And tell me this, since when do schools that think kids have banned substances do a search themselves. If the infraction was so great, why weren't the police and parents called. WTF! That's ridiculous. Oh ... oh, oh, oh ... how infuriating.
The whole zero tolerance thing should be scraped. Umbrella policies are wrong on every level. It allows lazy bureaucrats to through a blanket over everyone without the merits of a case by case breakdown. EVERY case is different and should be dealt with accordingly. I hope this young lady wins a bazillion dollars.
I don't see how students are expected to learn anything in prison like conditions. It's disgusting.
I reasonable person would see your point. However I think there are five justices on the supreme court who are not reasonable. Expect a 5-4 decision supporting the school district.
I share your outrage. However, given the presence of those 5 white Catholic men who don't really get "women" ...much less anything to do with civil liberties issues, I am not optimistic about their ruling on this case.

Back when we still had Ashcroft as an AG, I did a post on how he was going to make things so much easier for women... given the news stories about the "choice" between being felt up or spied upon with their special x-ray machines. Women were already having problems getting through security with under-wire bras.

I figured that the next step would be just to go ahead and "offer" women the choice to have their pap test done at the same time.

As I recall, there were also some stories then about "deliberate" childlessness, which aroused in me the fear of awaking to life in "The Handmaid's Tale."
"Given the nature of the suspected infraction"

Who does Advil to get high? Does she have to smuggle in Motrin in her ass if she has her period or a headache?

Well, we all know ibuprofen is a gateway drug...
It is never legal, proper or sensible to strip search a 13 year old...period. I know that they emphasized her sex, but part of me wondered (as I often do as a black woman) whether she was also a black or brown teen. Her skin color shouldn't be an added factor, but we all know that it often is. Ridiculous!
The underlined passage is from a court decision. The lawyers aren't saying that because Redding's a girl she's more in need of a strip search, rather they're using decision language to bolster their argument. Her sex is relevant only in that it meant the school retained female employees to search her.

And the school district isn't the one fighting this decision. They've one at district and appellate levels.
The lengths that some 'authorities' will go to implement their zero tolerance policies is ridiculous. We do not live in a police state and common sense died a long painful death as far as they're concerned. Whenever I hear such idiocy, I wonder about the child's race the five year old black girl who was handcuffed for acting like a five year old....yeah, don't think that would have happened to a white child.
The Ninth Circuit ruled in the girl's favour, ruling that the district had violated her fourth amendment rights.
At 13, a lot of young women need ibuprofen periodically (pun intended). If that's why she had it, that makes the strip search even more humiliating. I understand there is a drug problem in schools, but OTC pain relievers should be OK. They could limit the number allowed at any one time, and/or require a note from parents. Where are the right wing voices here saying parents, not school districts, are the ones who should decide what their children are and are not allowed to do?
From the photo posted with the story, it appears the young woman is white.
To Clarify:
Here is the decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court directly below the Supreme Court:

In October 2003, school officials at Safford School District strip-searched a 13-year-old girl after they received an uncorroborated "tip" from another student that the girl possessed "prescription strength" ibuprofen (i.e. two 200 mg tablets).

The child was an honor student who had no prior history of drug use or discipline problems. She was strip searched. No drugs were found.

Savana Redding's mother filed suit on her behalf.

In 2007, a divided three judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a motion for summary judgment on behalf of school officials in Redding v. Safford Unified School District #1, while noting that:

"Savana did not freely agree to this search. She was 'embarrassed and scared, but felt [she] would be in more trouble if [she] did not do what they asked.' In her affidavit, Savana described the experience as the most humiliating experience' of her short life, and felt 'violated by the strip search.'"

Savana and her mother requested the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear their case.

In a 6-5 en banc decision, the full Court reversed the earlier panel and found:

"On the basis of an uncorroborated tip from the culpable eighth grader, public middle school officials searched futilely for prescription-strength ibuprofen by strip-searching thirteen year-old honor student Savana Redding. We conclude that the school officials violated Savana’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The strip search of Savana was neither 'justified at its inception,' New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985), nor, as a grossly intrusive
search of a middle school girl to locate pills with the potency of two over-the-counter Advil capsules, 'reasonably related in scope to the circumstances' giving rise to its initiation. Id."

"Because these constitutional principles were clearly established at the time that middle school officials directed and conducted the search, the school official in charge is not entitled to qualified immunity from suit for the unconstitutional strip search of Savana."

Safford United School District appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the school district's appeal. Safford Unified School District argued that the Ninth Circuit created a new rule that requires public school officials to have more evidence of illegal possession of drugs or weapons at school than an unproven tip from another student.
Mrs. Michaels caught a serious error on my part. Lower courts had ruled in the district's favor; it took the Ninth Court, in an en banc decision to overturn that madness.
I am reminded of "The Magdalene Sisters." If you haven't seen it, rent it today.
I would warn those who would watch "The Magdalene Sisters" to do it in such a way that they can decompress afterward. I saw it with my eldest daughter when it was at the theatres, and it made both of upset.
They would have to tie me up to a tree or something because had that happened to my daughter I would be down at that school to kick somebodies ass. Those people would have had to move out of town because once they let me out of jail I would have gone back for more retribution.
This is what the misguided war on drugs has brought us to. Zero tolerance was widely supported when the policy was begun. When we allow any authority to proclaim zero tolerance we set the stage for this type of abuse. By making this the practice the school put itself in an untenable position. If it had not searched the girl then someone who did get searched could rightly claim discrimination.
Let's think about that word, discriminate. dis·crim·i·nate (d-skrm-nt) KEY

dis·crim·i·nat·ed , dis·crim·i·nat·ing , dis·crim·i·nates

To make a clear distinction; distinguish: discriminate among the options available.
To make sensible decisions; judge wisely.
To make distinctions on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit; show preference or prejudice: was accused of discriminating against women; discriminated in favor of his cronies.
How can we trust schools to properly educate our children if we can't trust them to "judge wisely"? Our schools are so afraid to exercise any level of choice that they abdicate their responsibility in favor of the current buzz words and out of fear of legal action.
I can't imagine the circumstances that would lead an entire school district to think that posession of ibuprofen was worthy of terrorizing a 13 year old.
It is never appropriate for school administration to violate students. I remember when I was in elementary school that problem students would sometimes end up in the principal's office and be subjected to corporal punishment. We've done away with that. Why is anyone not only tolerating this, but believing that it is a realistic way of dealing with anything. If the school administration fancies themselves law officers then they should get out of the education business.
I went for a walk today after I had written this post. It's been a tough couple of days for me; the doctors are now coming up with a new diagnosis for my headaches, and today, my head hurts something awful. Anyway, I was walking and thinking about this, and thinking that my youngest is going to be 12 this weekend, and the next thing I knew, I was crying. I was crying over the injustice of treating anybody this way. I remember that when I was a teen, we used to smuggle "Midol" to school to help because we had cramps. And it wasn't supposed to be tolerated then, but we knew that our backs hurt and our pelvises hurt and Midol was what we had. I cannot imagine that, if we had been caught, they would have subjected us to something so degrading.
I would hope that if one of my children were to find herself in this position, that she would insist on having me or her father called, because sure as shit, I'd be down in the officials' faces immediately.
No one takes ibuprofen to get high. It's not Vicodin or Percocet. 14-year-old girls take Advil for menstrual cramps.

Oh, and girls that age can legally buy it OTC at any pharmacy. It's not in any way illegal to carry around. If she were stopped on the street by the police and searched for drugs and all they found was this, they would have no reason to arrest her. "Prescription strength" doesn't mean it is a prescription, it means it's a strength that was FORMERLY but no longer reserved for prescriptions.
Now in the administration's defense, another student said that Savana had given her the ibuprofen, so obviously they needed to act quickly and decisively to break up what was obviously an underground Advil distribution ring run by hardened criminals. Who know what would be next, acetaminophen?

Next thing you know, the kids are all on the hard stuff - Aleve, which lasts a whole 12 hours before you need your next "fix", as I understand the term is in the drug underworld. Did we learn nothing from "Reefer Madness"?
This is beyond outrageous, not to mention idiotic! It's impossible to justify this treatment of the girl for anything less than a life or death emergency.

Zero tolerance is a stupid and lazy way to avoid having to think and use judgement about specific situations. To treat ibuprofen as though it's some hard-core, addictive, illegal drug is only one of the stupid responses of the school. As others have pointed out, no one is taking it to get high.
"it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity"
AMEN! I love it when the Court actually applies good old human logic instead of hiding behind convoluted words and stale doctrines.
I agree that treatment of the mentally "ill" needs reform. Where would you start?
Just disgusting in every sense of the word.

"Lawyers for the school district said" (end quote) the ends justify the means. I had a gig at a sports bar in neighboring Thatcher, AZ. Safford is a dry hole. Ditto all the outrage above.
And what are girls to do when they have industrial strength cramps? Does the school nurse hand out the otc painkillers?

This is a travesty that should never have gone to court. Those child abusing idiots still haven't caught the serious druggies, either.
I'd have missed 2-3 days of school per month (10%) if I wasn't allowed OTC painkillers in Jr and Sr. High. I had bad cramps. Ibuprofen was the standard cure. If that didn't work, you could go on the pill. Frankly, I think girls going through adolescence are a lot safer with the occasional Ibuprofen pill than taking hormones daily.
This is an obvious outrage and plain silliness. However, it also illustrates how critics and attackers of public schools have their influence in demanding that zero tolerance policies must be put in place because our schools are "out of control" and "not protecting our children" etc. This is where these policies are hatched. If people demand zero tolerance, then you can't allow exceptions. So, here is a school district, responding to public pressure, that gets it all wrong. Now, the critics get to circulate this type of story around and mock the schools for being stupid. You know, how do schools ever win, against the huge ocean of propaganda and negative press that is a constant sound in our society. There is enormous pressure on public schools. The critics win no matter what the result in cases like this. If the school had let the girl off with no action then they are "soft on drugs" if they institute some lame policy like this one, then they are unreasonable bureaucrats that symbolize how terrible our schools are. Why the school is and has been fighting this is hard to understand, I admit. It was a violation of human dignity. However, now the critics get to circulate and wave this around as a symbol of how terrible schools are which is unfair and another little piece of brainwashing. Someday, I may share the horrors I have seen at private and charter schools. Don't misunderstand, I think this was supremely stupid.
I haven't read the other posts yet, but obviously her sex was important because as a female, she had that EXTRA HOLE she could stash ibuprofen in. AYFKM is exactly right. This is so wrong.
My older brother was strip searched on the word of another student. That was over 20 years ago and it was wrong then, and it's wrong now.

Zero tolerance usually equals zero intelligence.
This is why you send your kid to school with a two-round Derringer, one round for the nurse and one round for the secretary. Strip search my kid for ADVIL? F that noise. Seriously. No discussion necessary.

When do we get to "zero tolerance" for Presidents (LBJ, Bush the Lesser) who LIE to start wars of aggression? No punishment whatsoever for certain massive crimes, eh?

The US of A, where "Justice" is just a word we like to use.
A friend of mine is a superintendent with a small school system in a rural area. When a first grader was suspended for drawing a gun on paper and pretending to shoot other students it drew outrage. I asked my friend why the over the top response. He said because of Columbine and other school shootings school systems have to take zero policy. Not because he thought the child was going to do any harm, but because if nothing was done and sometime in the future this child committed an act of violence, the public would second guess the school system to death.

Our society has taken what use to be reasonable action and turned it into a reason to sue or seek legal action. It is always easy to second guess a situation, but when you are in the middle of it, what do you do. Our society will not accept any mistakes or the fact bad things just happen.

I have no idea if the case in question was unreasonable. What if this 13 year old took the pain medication and had a reaction? Would these same parients demand compensation. What if she gave the medication to another child and they had a reaction, would both parents sue? That is what school systems fact every day.

We have become hyper about everything. A reasonable person would say this insane war on drugs has driven us to the point of extremes and maybe we should ease up, but, for those facing constant second guessing of their policies the idea of better safe than sorry seems the more reasonable action.
This is just f'd up, period.

Back when I was in Jr high/High School, every girl I knew had a little bottle in their locker, it was either Midol or Aleve. We made no bones about sharing with each other for those horrible "PMS Days" and a few of the teachers KNEW and didn't say a word . . . Yet I got sent to the princeple's office for giving my friend a Tampon during biology during Junior year, WTF? The princeples response was that they couldn't be sure that we weren't exchaning drugs.

This kind of BS makes me afraid I'm going to blow a gasket. Judge Wardlaw needs to be cloned. The school officials need to have their asses handed to them.

Rated for raising my heartrate.
I do hear those of you who are arguing that schools are caught between a rock and a hard place. We've sort of driven ourselves right off the cliff with our zero tolerance policies on drugs, and our fears for our children's safety. At my daughters' schools, they are not allowed to carry backpacks. Instead, they must hump their books from first period through lunch, return to their locker, then grab the afternoon's books and hump them too. No hoodies. All sorts of restrictions on what they can wear, and when.
But it's all selectively enforced. I once saw one of my daughter's friends get told to cover up because she was being immodest. To be perfectly honest, she didn't look any different from what the group of friends she was with were wearing. I asked my daughter, "why did X just get told to put a sweater on?" Her response? "Because Mrs. Z is a racist." Her friend was African-American; my daughter had already noted that the white girls didn't get told to cover up.

I do understand that somewhere in their "logic," someone decided that Motrin could not be tolerated. But even in my most extreme moment, I cannot see subjecting a kid to strip-searching. Call her parents? sure. Even call the police, if that's how far you want to take it. But sexually assault her? I don't think so. And that's what I see this as. Sexual assault. They violated her body to check her for drugs.
M Todd asks a good question:

What if this 13 year old took the pain medication and had a reaction?

At no point during the procedure was it established that Savana had either possessed the ibuprofen, or had given it to the student who did have it, I'd say that she wouldn't have been involved.

Rules that say students have to bring any medication that they may need to the school nurse who will dispense them per instructions from the parent, or the prescription label are reasonable. Rules that say we strip search one student based on the unsubstantiated word of another are not.
How about a really simple answer? Just NO! Not acceptable.

Only thing I'd add is that this is not just a New York problem. It's been reported here in Chicago too. . .
Yeah, OK, I can see requiring the kids who take OTC painkillers for cramps to leave those medications with the nurse and get them dispensed that way during the breaks between classes. I still think that's silly, given that these are PERFECTLY LEGAL DRUGS WHICH CAN BE LEGALLY BOUGHT BY CHILDREN AT ANY DRUGSTORE OR WAL-MART OR GAS STATION, but I understand the school district's need to cover its ass legally.

(I'm waiting for the lawsuit from the parents of the girl who got pregnant because the rubber her boyfriend got from the school nurse broke...You know that situation has happened, and it's only a matter of time before someone decides it's The School's Fault.)

But there is NO CALL for school officials to strip-search anybody. They are not the law. Seriously, if it gets to the point that a strip-search of a student is necessary to protect the safety of the other kids, the kid's parents and the police need to be called.
Short answer? NEVER.

I read the story this morning too, and was appalled. Even if they thought she was smuggling heroin, they had no right to strip search her. They are not the police, nor are they the court system. And come on, ADVIL?! GMAFB.
It is NEVER appropriate to strip-search a 14 year old on school grounds. Moreover, it is NEVER appropriate for school officials to conduct a strip search. PERIOD.

Not if it were cocaine, heroine, or LSD.

The only type of search that I would think were legal and appropriate would be a weapons search which could easily be conducted with a metal detector.
John, I am not excusing the action of the school. And to strip search someone on the word of another especially since it is an over the counter pain killer that does not get you high makes it even more over the top.

On one hand I feel for the schools being forced to make these discussions, but at the same time becoming a mindless bureaucracy that puts Mortin in the same category as heroin makes me wonder if the school has the ability to even be responsible for children.
What is happening to common sense?
There is nothing about school drug policy that should ever make it possible to steal a child's innocence.

If the school had a reasonable belief that she was in possession of drugs, they could have watched her while they contacted her parents so that she could at least have some emotional support and a family decision could be made about how to deal with the problem.

They weren't looking for meth, crack or heroin for God's sake. There was no danger to another student. There was no justifiable reason for treating a child that way who was not being a danger to herself or anyone else. They didn't even have probable cause.

Wardlaw was right.
By the way, there is legal precedent for treating minors differently than adults. This wasn't mentioned in what I have read about the case, but I remember that from studying Juvenile Justice in law school. I doubt it's changed much.
Here is a summary of the most important case we studied, New Jersey v. T.L.O.:

"Should the Exclusionary Rule Apply to
Searches Conducted by School Officials in a School Setting?


What is the exclusionary rule?


In the 1961 case of Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that the exclusionary rule applied to the states as well as the federal government. The question then became, "Does the exclusionary rule apply to schools?"

The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this issue in the 1983 case of State In the Interest of T.L.O. In that case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled in favor of T.L.O., saying that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. Further, in its opinion, the New Jersey Court reasoned that the Supreme Court of the United States has made it quite clear that the exclusionary rule is equally applicable "whether the public official who illegally obtained the evidence was a municipal inspector, a firefighter, or school administrator or law enforcement official." The New Jersey Court concluded, "that if an official search violates constitutional rights, the evidence is not admissible in criminal proceedings."

When the State of New Jersey, which was unhappy with this decision, requested that the Supreme Court grant certiorari in this case, the question presented was whether the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule applies to searches made by public school officials and teachers in schools. In their oral arguments before the Court, the two sides debated this and other issues."

The court held, in part, in its 6-3 decision:

". . . [T]he legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search . . . Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be "justified at its inception" when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. Such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."

I think on this basis that the school district will lose, because it was not reasonable based on the nature of the infraction. You can also see that students do not possess the same 4th Amendment rights as adults.
When I first read about this case, my view was, in effect, they should have had her parents present. At the time I didn't realize all the details - that it was ibuprofen, there was no evidence, she has no prior run ins with school adminstrators regarding drugs....and now that I have the whole picture I am sick to my stomach with anger at the school, and the court. Who in their right mind would tell a school in writing at the beginning of the year "Feel free to strip search my daughter if you ever have any reason - or not! - to be suspicious of her!!"
I feel that no school offical should strip search my child that is embarrasing to the child because after you have seen me half way naked i have to look at you on a daily basis while going to school. No way as the parent call me and let me deal with the searching of my child especially for medication its not like a weapon or something I say notify the parent first send the child out of the class let them wait in the office of the school until i arrive then we will deal with the issue at hand in a more professional matter.
I had such a hard time reading this. These bastards. When I heard it on the news I was appalled. There are some really sick individuals running things and kids become the first vulnerable victims. Just because they are kids they are treated like they have no rights. This zero tolerance BS pisses me off too. There are just some adults who shouldn't be adults. If anyone EVER touches my kids, they will be in jail in no time. Thank you for sharing this. I know it was hard for you too.