A United States Supreme Court decision issued on June 25 clarified an issue that may be of interest to school districts. The issue is: what constitutes a reasonable search of a student when a school employee has a reasonable suspicion that the student may have narcotics or other contraband on her person. The Court’s discussion of an Arizona public school’s strip search of a middle school student who was suspected of distributing prescription drugs is summarized below.
In Safford Unified School District #1, et al. v. Redding, the mother of a 13-year old middle school student sued her local school district, an Assistant Principal, the school nurse and an administrative assistant because they ordered or participated in a search of her daughter that included: 1) a search of the student’s bag; 2) a search of the student’s outer clothes, and; 3) a search that required the student to strip-down to her underclothes and turn them out in a manner that allowed a limited view of her breasts and pelvic area. The mother claimed that the search violated her daughter’s 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The Supreme Court held that, although the first two parts of the search were appropriate under the circumstances, the third “strip search” violated the student’s constitutional rights.
The search was unconstitutional because it was not, “ … reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the [search] in the first place.” The Assistant Principal knew that the contraband in question was prescription strength ibuprofen and an over-the-counter pain reliever. The search was not reasonable related to the justification for the search because, “… non-dangerous contraband does not raise the specter of stashes in intimate places” and there were no circumstances present here, either in the form of known practices or statements of other students, that suggested that such a search might be fruitful.
In conclusion, this decision recognizes that school searches may be justified by a lower level of suspicion than criminal searches but that the appropriateness of a search may differ with the age and gender of the student. Furthermore, with reasonable suspicion, searches of bags and pockets are not unreasonable. However, as the search becomes more intrusive (again, considering age and gender), actors must have suspicions of a dangerous threat and a factual basis for deciding that the search may yield contraband.
For more information about how this decision may impact your school district’s search policies and procedures or your student’s rights, please contact our office.