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Rights Watch

Supreme Court Hears Student Strip-Search Case


Groff Creative, Inc.

Savana Redding was 13 years old when her assistant principal ordered her strip-searched. What was he looking for? A 400 mg tablet of ibuprofen.

The search turned up nothing.

Savana sued, and now—six years later—the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether student strip searches violate the Constitution.

It was October 2003, and Savana was an eighth-grade honor student with a spotless disciplinary record in Safford, Arizona, when Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson barged into her math class and hauled her off to his office. Another student had been caught in possession of several “IBU 400s” and had ratted out Savana as a fellow offender.

Wilson first searched her backpack. Finding nothing, and despite her emphatic denials that she had ever brought pills into school, he ordered his assistant and the school nurse, both female, to conduct a strip search. 

Under the watchful eyes of the two officials, Savana stripped down to her bra and panties. Then she was told to pull her bra to the side and pull out her underwear at the crotch, exposing her breasts and pelvic area to the two adults.

No pills were ever found, and Savana was not punished. But she would later describe the ordeal as “the most humiliating experience” of her life.

Emphasizing that “a school is not a prison,” and “students are not inmates,” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. v. Redding that the search violated Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights.

While suggesting that the “tip” from another student implicating Savana might have been enough to justify the search of her backpack, the court held that it clearly did not justify the “extreme measure” of forcing a 13-year-old girl to disrobe.  Plus, “possessing ibuprofen” is a minor offense that posed no “imminent danger” to anyone.

Citing scientific research, the court said that subjecting pubescent girls to strip searches inflicts “psychological trauma,” is “thoroughly degrading and frightening,” and can cause a wide range of emotional harms. 

While holding Assistant Principal Wilson and the school district liable, the court dismissed the claims against the school nurse and Wilson's assistant because they were merely “following orders” from their supervisor.

Savana’s ACLU attorney Adam Wolf warned NEA Today that “if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the school district, then strip-searching our kids will be as common as children tattling on each other.”

NEA filed an amicus brief in support of Savanna, presenting scientific and sociological evidence that strip searches can cause students serious and long-term emotional and psychological harm.

  • In another case with wide-reaching implications, Horne v. Flores, the Supreme Court will decide whether Arizona has violated its obligations under federal law to educate English Language Learners (ELLs).

Filed in 1992 by parents in Nogales, Arizona, the lawsuit argues that the state has failed to adequately fund ELL programs in violation of the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA). That 1974 law requires every state to “take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation” by ELL students.

Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arizona had violated the EEOA and ordered the state to substantially increase its funding for ELL programs.

The state appealed, saying the court exceeded its authority.

NEA filed a friend of the court brief in this case supporting the plaintiffs.

  • The High Court also will decide an important case involving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In Forest Grove Sch. Dist. v. T.A., the Court will consider whether parents can make a school district reimburse them for private school tuition for their disabled child, even if they never gave the district a chance to devise an Individualized Education Plan and provide the necessary services. NEA filed an amicus brief in support of the school district.

The Supreme Court has heard oral argument in all three cases and is expected to issue rulings by the end of June.


Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel


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  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2009
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