Administrators at an Arizona middle school are asking the US Supreme Court to rule that they did not violate the privacy rights of an eighth-grade girl who was strip-searched in a fruitless attempt to find suspected drugs.
At issue in the case, set for argument Tuesday morning, is whether the strip search of a 13-year-old girl by school officials is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Lawyers for the girl and her mother say it was an unconstitutional invasion of the girl's privacy. School officials say their actions were justified because they were trying to protect the student population from a risk to their health and safety.
The case could set a national standard for how far school officials can go in conducting searches of students' property – and even their bodies – while investigating alleged violations of school policies and rules.
"This is the case where the Supreme Court is likely to decide how easy it is for your child to be strip-searched," says Graham Boyd, one of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers representing the girl and her mother.
In addition, the high court is being asked to decide whether the assistant principal who authorized the strip search can be shielded by qualified immunity from a lawsuit filed against him by the girl's mother.
Boyd and ACLU lawyer Adam Wolf say the search was based on just one unreliable accusation by a fellow student, which is not sufficient reason to justify such an intrusive search.
"A child's 'private parts' are not subject to observation by school officials without significant justification," said Mr. Wolf, in the brief for the schoolgirl and her mother.
You'll excuse me if I don't link to the rest of this; just file it under the latest reason to homeschool.
In my opinion, Mr. Wolf, the lawyer, is being very understated. I think that a child's private parts are not subject to observation by school officials ever, for any reason. Schools aren't prisons; what's next, body cavity searches in kindergarten? ("I know you took that tube of glue, Timmy, and I'm going to find it!") Good grief.
The girl was accused of sneaking ibuprofen into school and distributing it--on the word of one other girl. The nightmare of humiliation she endured next was wholly unjustified. For heaven's sake, whatever happened to calling a parent or sending the child home, even if you suspect she's concealing a prescription-strength version of an over-the-counter painkiller? Wouldn't you be protecting the "health and safety" of the student body just as well, if not better, than making the girl remove her clothing in front of adults she barely knows?
But this isn't really about protecting the health and safety of the student body. It's about what it always is about with petty school bureaucrats: power. There were plenty of ways to keep this girl from "harming" others, even if she had been concealing drugs--which she was not. There was only one way to degrade her, shame her, and make her an example to the rest of the student body, to flex their authoritarian muscle while making it clear to the young lady that she had no recourse whatsoever to get away from them except to do exactly what they told her to do without argument or complaint. And, sadly, far too many people who end up in positions of authority at schools are all too willing to become little dictators at the slightest opportunity.
SCOTUS should rule in favor of the girl, overwhelmingly and a bit snarkily, if you ask me. The school didn't just strip her of her clothing; they stripped her of her dignity. What she learned in school is that it's okay for people in power to do that whenever they like, with no notion of justice or respect for her as a person at all. And that's one lesson no one should ever have to learn.