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Teen strip-searched in school wins partial victory

  • Story Highlights
  • Savana Redding was 13 when administrators suspected she was carrying drugs
  • No medication was found, and she later sued
  • Justices: Search was unreasonable, but individual school officials can't be sued
  • Redding, now 19, has said she has never gotten over her experience
By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A former middle-school student who was strip-searched by school officials looking for ibuprofen pain medication won a partial victory of her Supreme Court appeal Thursday in a case testing the discretion of officials to ensure classroom safety.

Savana Redding leaves the U.S Supreme Court in April. She was 13 when she was strip-searched.

Savana Redding leaves the U.S Supreme Court in April. She was 13 when she was strip-searched.

Savana Redding was 13 when administrators suspected that she was carrying banned drugs.

No medication was found, and she later sued.

The justices concluded that the search was unreasonable but that individual school administrators could not be sued.

The larger issue of whether a campus setting traditionally gives schools greater authority over students suspected of illegal activity than police are allowed was not addressed fully by the divided court.

"Savana's subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening and humiliating," wrote Justice David Souter for the majority, likely his last opinion before he steps down from the bench next week.

But reflecting the divisiveness over the issue, Souter said, "We think these differences of opinion from our own are substantial enough to require immunity for the school officials in this case."

Whether the school district would be liable was not an issue before the high court.

"I'm pretty excited that they agreed with me, they see that it was wrong for the school to do that," Redding said from her Hobbs, New Mexico, home after the ruling was announced.

"I'm pretty certain that it's so far less likely to happen again" to other students.

Redding was an eighth-grade honor student in 2003, with no history of disciplinary problems at Safford Middle School, about 127 miles from Tucson, Arizona.

During an investigation into pills found at the school, a student told the vice principal that Redding had given her prescription-strength 400-milligram ibuprofen pills.

The school had a near-zero-tolerance policy for all prescription and over-the-counter medication, including the ibuprofen, without prior written permission.

Redding was pulled from class by Vice Principal Kerry Wilson, escorted to an office and confronted with the evidence. The girl denied the accusations.

A search of Redding's backpack found nothing. A strip search was conducted by Wilson's assistant and a school nurse, both females.

Redding was ordered to strip to her underwear and to pull on the elastic of the underwear, so any hidden pills might fall out, according to court records. No drugs were found.

"The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had," Redding said in an affidavit. "I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry."

Souter said Wilson initially had "sufficient suspicion" to justify searching the girl's backpack and outer clothing. But when no contraband was found, the officials went too far by continuing the search of her underwear.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Redding and her family sued, and a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled against the school, calling the search "traumatizing" and illegal. That court said the school went too far in its effort to create a drug- and crime-free classroom.

The Supreme Court found little agreement on key issues. Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that the search was illegal but would have also made individual officials liable for damages by Redding.

"Wilson's treatment of Redding was abusive, and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it," said Ginsburg, who was especially forceful during oral arguments in April, criticizing the school's actions.

But Justice Clarence Thomas took the opposite view: that administrators deserved immunity and that the search was permissible.

"Preservation of order, discipline and safety in public schools is simply not the domain of the Constitution," he said. "And, common sense is not a judicial monopoly or a constitutional imperative."

In 1985, the high court allowed the search of a student's purse after she was suspected of hiding cigarettes. Such a search was permitted if there were "reasonable" grounds for believing that it would turn up evidence and when the search was not "excessively intrusive."

Opinions in 1995 and 2001 allowed schools to conduct random drug testing of high school athletes and those participating in other extracurricular activities.

The court was being asked to clarify the extent of student rights involving searches and the discretion of officials regarding those they have responsibility over.

Adam Wolf, an ACLU attorney who represented Redding, applauded the decision.

"When parents send their kids to school, they can now breathe a sigh of relief they will not end up naked before school officials," Wolf said .

But school administrators said the ruling does not make their jobs any easier.

"The home medicine cabinet now poses a serious threat to students, who may take those medications for abusive purposes," said Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association. "That's a problem schools are trying to stem."

"How they determine now whether the drug is dangerous, whether it's not dangerous -- that kind of clarity and that kind of guidance, the court did not give us."

Redding, now 19, said she has never gotten over her experience.

"Before it happened, I loved school, loved everything about it. You know, I had a 4.0 GPA, honor roll, and now, well, afterwards I never wanted to go to school again."

She is attending college.

The case is Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding (08-479).

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