Overturning two earlier rulings, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said last week an Arizona middle school assistant principal violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old inmate of his government youth propaganda camp (“public school”) by ordering her to be strip searched to determine whether she had in her possession a prescription-strength ibuprofen.
The 6-5 ruling by the San Francisco-based court — binding in nine states including Nevada — reinstated a lawsuit that a divided three-judge circuit panel threw out last year. The now-revived suit was brought by the parents of Savana Redding, who was an eighth grader at Stafford Middle School in southeastern Arizona when assistant principal Kerry Wilson ordered her out of math class and into his office to investigate whether she’d violated the school’s “zero tolerance” drug policy, which prohibits even over-the-counter medication.
School officials in the conservative ranching community had found another student with Savana’s school planner and some ibuprofen pills. That “frightened” student claimed Savana had given her the pills. Savana denied it. After a search of her pockets and backpack yielded nothing incriminatory, Wilson ordered his administrative assistant and a school nurse to force the girl to disrobe.
“The officials had Savana peel off each layer of clothing in turn,” wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw for the majority.
The girl stood in her bra and underpants while the two female goons searched her clothes. She was then ordered to partially remove her bra, exposing her breasts, and finally told to shake out the crotch of her underpants.
“Hiding her head so that the adults could not see that she was about to cry, Savana complied and pulled out her underwear, revealing her pelvic area,” Judge Wardlaw wrote. “No ibuprofen was found.”
The majority said the search was unjustified because school officials made no attempt to corroborate the unsubstantiated claim by the “cornered” student who was “seeking to shift blame from herself” when she identified Savana as the source of the headache pills. Forcing a 13-year-old child to disrobe was a “disproportionately extreme measure,” the majority said.
“Common sense informs us that directing a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen, an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one, and which could have been handled by keeping her in the principal’s office until a parent arrived or simply sending her home, was excessively intrusive,” Judge Wardlaw wrote.
The court cited arguments by the National Association of Social Workers that strip searches of children “can result in serious emotional damage, including the development of, or increase in, oppositional behavior.”
The ruling held Wilson, the assistant principal, could be liable for monetary damages, while his aide and the school nurse were not because they were acting under his orders.
In a dangerous dissent, appeals court Judge Michael Daly Hawkins held the search was constitutional. “School officials deserve the greatest latitude when responding to behavior that threatens the health and safety of students or teachers. …” Judge Hawkins wrote. “When school officials reasonably believe that a student is carrying a weapon or harmful drugs, it will rarely be unreasonable for them to do what they can to neutralize the danger.”
Goodness. Should they have moved on to a gynecological exam? Why not force all the children to strip naked upon arrival at school, hosing them down for good measure?
A cynic might argue such experiences are good training for young people of Savana’s generation, “breaking them in” to the kind of police state already in force at America’s airports (where it’s now illegal to make an utterance that might “distract” or in any way upset your assigned crotch-fondler), the more general expansion of which is eagerly anticipated by the folks who now demand your fingerprints and mug shot before you can cash a check, carry a firearm, or sign a mortgage document — and a urine sample before you start your new job.
After all (this line of argument goes), it’s Savana’s parents who turned over their precious child to the government for indoctrination: What did they expect?
In fact, however, the appeals court errs here only in the implication that strip-searching a 13-year-old might be OK if school officials were looking for something a little more potent than ibuprofen. The presumption of innocence and the right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure would not evaporate even if the suspected “crime” involved a reefer or a pocket knife.
Nor should it be necessary to cite “social workers” to the effect that such debasement — not widely seen outside of Army boot camps in this country since slavery days — risks the development of “oppositional behavior,” which I will take to mean the kind of defiance and guerrilla resistance which are exactly what the incarcerated inmates of these youth camps should be up to.
Police-state tactics are banned in a free country, period. It is no more morally justified to make me support such a regime by seizing the necessary funding from me in the form of “school taxes” than it would be to use my tax dollars to fund government rape camps or the forcible conversion of non-believers to the Church of Gaia or the Cult of Induced Sickness Through Cannabinoid Deprivation.
Wilson was way out of line — as were the members of the local school board who presumably empowered him with this “zero tolerance” zealotry.
Monetary damages? In some places, they do a lot more than that to a man who uses his position of trust and authority to require a 13-year-old girl to take off all her clothes.