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Justices Rule School’s Strip Search of Student Was Illegal

June 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Thursday that officials at an Arizona school went too far when they strip searched an eighth-grader accused of distributing drugs. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal discusses the ruling with Jim Lehrer.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: The U.S. Supreme Court issued a major decision today on the rights of students. The court said school officials in Arizona went too far when they strip-searched a teenager looking for pain pills.

Here to tell us more about this lead story is Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Marcia, welcome.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: First, remind us of basically what the facts were in this case.

MARCIA COYLE: OK, it went like this. A male student went to the assistant principal and told him there was a plan for the students at this middle school to take some pills on campus that day, and he gave the assistant principal a white pill. And it was later discovered the pill was a prescription-strength ibuprofen pill.

JIM LEHRER: Pain pill?

MARCIA COYLE: Pain pill, right, exactly. The principal asked the young man, Who gave it to you?

He said a female student, first name Melissa, gave it to him. The principal went, got Melissa out of class, searched her belongings, and found a blue pill, three white pills, and a razor blade. He asked her, Where did you get those?

And she said she got them from Samantha Redding, who is the named person in the case today before the Supreme Court. He then went and took Samantha…

JIM LEHRER: Samantha is 13 years old, right, at the time?

MARCIA COYLE: Thirteen years old at the time. Now she’s 19 and in college. He got Samantha out of class, brought her to his office, searched her backpack, her outer clothing, her jacket, no pills. She denied that any of this belonged to her, although it was in a student day planner that she said she had loaned to this Melissa.

After finding no pills on her outer clothing and in her backpack, he asked the student nurse and an aide to take Samantha to a private room and basically strip-search her. She took off her shoes and socks, no pills. Then she was told to strip down to her bra and her underpants and to pull them away from her body so that, if there was any contraband, it would fall out. Nothing was found.

They then took her to a chair outside the principal’s office, where she sat for the next two hours. Parents were never contacted.

Reasonable suspicion

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
In 1985, the Supreme Court held that school officials can have a lesser standard of suspicion in order to justify searches of students...But the search also has to be reasonable.

JIM LEHRER: Now, who sued whom and what happened?

MARCIA COYLE: Samantha's mother sued the school officials and the school district claiming that Samantha's constitutional rights had been violated. This is a Fourth Amendment case. You are...

JIM LEHRER: Constitutional right, as defined as what?

MARCIA COYLE: Right, Fourth Amendment case. We are protected by the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable searches and seizures.

JIM LEHRER: OK. OK.

MARCIA COYLE: She also sought damages from the school district and the officials. The lower courts agreed with Samantha's mother that her rights had been -- the student's rights had been violated. The school district brought the case to the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the decision today, 8-1. What did the majority say?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Souter wrote the opinion.

JIM LEHRER: That's unusual, is it not, for Justice Souter to write a majority opinion?

MARCIA COYLE: No, actually, he does write majority opinions. But, being on the more liberal wing of the court, he may not get as many assignments as those on the conservative wing, which is dominant for the most part today.

But he wrote the majority opinion, and he said, OK, in 1985, the Supreme Court held that school officials can have a lesser standard of suspicion in order to justify searches of students, and that's because school officials are entrusted with our children's health and safety. They need some flexibility here.

JIM LEHRER: Unlike at a regular workplace.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: You could go slightly further in abridging somebody's rights in searches?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. And law enforcement officials have to meet a higher standard of suspicion. The standard for school officials is reasonable suspicion or, as Justice Souter explained, a moderate chance of finding evidence of illegal activity.

But the search also has to be reasonable. It cannot be excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the activity the student's accused of doing.

Justice Souter said the assistant principal here was reasonable in his search of her backpack and of her jacket pockets, but...

New category for strip-searches

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
A strip-search conveys a message, a very serious message, that you've done something seriously wrong. And it's also humiliating and degrading to the student, and so it demands its own special, specific suspicion.

JIM LEHRER: Went too far?

MARCIA COYLE: ... he went too far. The majority today basically put strip-searches in a new category and said, if school officials are going to do a strip-search, they need more. They need -- he said what was missing here, basically, is there was no evidence of danger to the students from the quantity or power of the drugs and there was no reason to suspect that Samantha Redding was hiding drugs or the pills in her underwear.

JIM LEHRER: They didn't say that you can't do strip-searches.

MARCIA COYLE: No, they did not.

JIM LEHRER: You just have to have -- you have to have a more legitimate reason for doing it.

MARCIA COYLE: He said a strip-search conveys a message, a very serious message, that you've done something seriously wrong. And it's also humiliating and degrading to the student, and so it demands its own special, specific suspicion. How's that for alliteration?

JIM LEHRER: You got it. Got it. Got it. OK, there was one dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas. What did he say?

Dissenting opinion

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
He said context matters. This middle school had a history of drug problems on campus. And he said Samantha Redding would not have been the first person to hide contraband in her underwear.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, he felt that the court's new standard here for strip-searches was too vague and that the courts now were intruding massively in the role of the schools in order to maintain discipline and safety as students.

And he also felt the search was reasonable. He said context matters. This middle school had a history of drug problems on campus. And he said Samantha Redding would not have been the first person to hide contraband in her underwear. And after today's decision, he said she probably won't be the last, now that the court has announced the most secret place in schools to hide drugs.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, now this is a decision with wide implications, correct? This could essentially affect every school in America.

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. I don't know, frankly, how often strip-searches are done in our schools. But we do know that there are searches of students, that the Supreme Court has OK'd searches of athletic players in high schools. It has said it's all right to search students if they're involved in extracurricular activities.

But I think it does send now a clear message to schools that, if you want to do a strip search, you're going to have to have very strong justification to do it.

Upcoming decisions

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, Marcia, there were two -- a couple of other decisions today, but we're still waiting for one big decision, that's the Hartford firefighters case, and it looks like it may come on Monday. Is that correct?

MARCIA COYLE: The chief justice announced today that Monday will be the last day of the term. There are three decisions still hanging out there. One of them is the New Haven firefighters race discrimination challenge, two others.

JIM LEHRER: A kind of reverse discrimination, in a way.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it is, because it's white firefighters and one Hispanic claiming race discrimination in how the city is using a promotional test.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Marcia, as always, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Jim.