In an important ruling on the rights of students, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled that the Safford Unified School District’s strip search of a middle school teenage girl accused of having prescription-strength ibuprofen was illegal.
In its 8-1 ruling with Justice Clarence Thomas as the lone dissenter on the main question, the justices held that school officials violated the law when officials at Safford Middle School ordered then-13 year old Savana Redding to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear because they were looking for over-the-counter pain relievers. Writing for the majority, Justice Souter explained their reasoning:
Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. [Assistant Principal]Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve. He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills.
In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to thestudents from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.
Also before the court was an appeal of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Savana and her mother could sue the assistant principal who ordered the strip search for damages, but not the two staff members who followed the assistant principal’s instructions. Today’s ruling split 7-2 on the question of whether school personnel had qualified immunity, granting Wilson and the two school officials qualified immunity, but remanding the question as to whether Savana and her mother could sue the district. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens dissented from the granting of qualified immunity.
Court Opinion: Safford Unified v. Redding, 08-479 (pdf)