Monday, May 4, 2009

Constitutional Rights of Students

by Katherine Scardino

Do minor students have any fundamental constitutional rights, or do they lose those at the schoolhouse door? Students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under our Constitution and have fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. This month the Supreme Court will be hearing the case of young, 13-year-old Savana Redding and her lawsuit against the Safford (Arizona) Unified School District #1.

The incident involved a female student informing the counselor that she had gotten some pills from Savana. The counselor asked the school nurse to identify the pill, and the nurse informed the counselor and ultimately the principal that the pill was a 400 mg Ibuprofin. (Advil and Motrin are 200 mg tablets.) Based on this information from another student, school officials strip searched Savana, by placing this young girl in a locked room with two females, the school nurse and a secretary. They asked Savana to take off all her clothes except her bra and pants. She was asked to pull the bottom part of her bra away from her body and shake it, exposing her breasts. She was then asked to pull her waist band away from her body and shake it, exposing her pubic area. No drugs were found. At no time did anyone call either of her parents.

This one incident has caused a wave of public concern over the authority of school officials to authorize this type of behavior. Schools are generally acting in loco parentis - meaning that when they have minor students in their custody, they are acting in the place and stead of a parent.

A 1985 Supreme Court case (New Jersey v. T.L.O.) stated the proper standard for evaluating the constitutionality of a search. It must be (1) justified in its inception and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. Further, it has been held that student tips alone are insufficient to support a constitutionally permissible strip search. In other words, an uncorroborated “tip” may justify additional inquiry or investigation, but it does not justify a strip search. Strip searches are among the most intrusive searches; they are demeaning, dehumanizing and terrifying, and especially for a 13-year-old girl.

But what makes this incident so questionable is that the school officials were well aware from the beginning that the pill was a 400 mg Ibuprofin, hardly a “controlled substance." The parents of Savana were appalled, and not surprisingly, they sued the school district. They lost at the State appellate level, but continued their battle all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

So our Supreme Court gets to hear argument on this issue. I am waiting to hear whether the strip search of a child may be constitutionally justified on the basis of uncorroborated rumor and as such, a violation of the student’s Fourth Amendment rights.


Leah said...

Excellent post KS. I will be watching for the SC decision.

Way back when I was 13, a student couldn't even be paddled without the written consent of the parent. It is unfathomable to me that the school personnel felt it necessary to strip search because of 400mg of Ibuprofin. Even if they'd found a quaalood [sp], they should have called the parents to be present for any kind of search.

Laura James said...

I'm with you - very troubled by this search. I agree with Leah that the minimum they should have done is contacted the parents before anything was done. If they'd done this to a child of mine, I would've had a hard time stopping my husband from punching somebody in the face.

I can still remember a female middle school gym teacher who forced every girl in the locker room to open their towels for her to "prove" that we had showered after gym class. Oh, and the teacher was pretty butch too. That crap wouldn't fly today - I hope.

katherine scardino said...

I thought this case was very interesting, and I certainly hope that the S.Ct. gives us some clear, concise rules that are clear to school officials. I agree with Laura - if some teacher did that to my daughter, I would have a hard time not punching someone!!

Since I have been a lawyer, I have heard the phrase "a kid loses his constitutional rights when he steps through the school front door". I would like to see this change, but taking into consideration the drug and gun issues....surely there is a middle ground.