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Court takes up student strip search case

April 21, 2009 12:11:21 PM PDT
The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday took up the case of a 13-year-old girl who was strip-searched at school because she was suspected of carrying prescription-strength ibuprofen.Savana Redding, now 19 years old, was an honor student at a Safford Arizona Middle School in 2003 when a classmate accused Redding of giving her pills.

Vice Principal Kerry Wilson took Redding to his office to search her backpack, but when nothing was found, she was sent to the nurse's office.

"They asked me to take off my clothes, and I did. When I was finally in my underwear, I thought, okay, they are going to let me put my clothes back on," Redding said.

"They just looked at me and said, 'Well, now you have to pull out your bra and shake it and your underwear as well.' I really wanted to cry."

School officials found nothing and did not notify Redding's mother of the search.

Mother April Redding learned what had happened when she picked her daughter up from school that day.

"She was very upset, emotional," she said. "It just hurt me I couldn't protect her."

Savana Redding said she felt humiliated and refused to return to school, and eventually transferred.

Her mother decided to sue for violation of the constitutional right against unreasonable search.

A federal magistrate dismissed the suit, and a federal appeals panel concurred that the search did not violate Savana Redding's rights. But last July, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the search was "an invasion of constitutional rights," and further held that the school Vice Principal could be held personally liable.

The school district appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In arguments before the high court Tuesday, Redding's attorney, Adam B. Wolf, argued that the search was "intrusive and traumatic," and unconstitutional unless school administrators were specifically told there was contraband in the girl's underwear.

The lawyer for the school, Matthew Wright, countered that the Court should not restrict the ability of school officials to search out what they believe are dangerous items on school grounds.

A 1985 Supreme Court decision held that school officials searching a student's purse needed reasonable suspicion, but not probable cause. However, the court in that case also warned against searches that are "excessively intrusive."

That distinction seemed to be on the mind of Supreme Court justices during questioning in the Redding case. Justice David Souter noted that school officials may have to choose between a search that embarrasses a student, and the obligation to keep all students safe.

"With those stakes in mind," asked Justice Souter, "Why isn't that reasonable?" However, Souter also noted that permitting strip searches of children could eventually lead to more intrusive actions, such as body cavity searches.

"There would be no legal basis in saying that was out of bounds," Souter said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report


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