In hearing arguments on the strip search of an eighth-grader suspected of carrying ibuprofen, the Supreme Court takes failing to get it to a new level, writes Dahlia Lithwick in Slate. The male justices saw the strip search — conducted without informing Savanna Redding’s parents — as no big deal.
And even if you were never a 13-year-old girl yourself, if you have a daughter or niece, you might see the humiliation in pulling a middle-school honor student with no history of disciplinary problems out of class, based on an uncorroborated tip that she was handing out prescription ibuprofen. You might think it traumatic that she was forced to strip down to her underclothes and pull her bra and underwear out and shake them in front of two female school employees. No drugs were found.
In a 1985 case involving searching students’ purses for marijuana, the Supreme Court ruled that a search cannot be “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” The standard for intrusiveness has fallen dramatically, Lithwick writes.
Adam Wolf, the ACLU lawyer who represents Redding, explains that “the Fourth Amendment does not countenance the rummaging on or around a 13-year-old girl’s naked body.” Wolf explains that he is arguing for a “two-step framework,” wherein schools can use a lower standard to search “backpacks, pencil cases, bookbags” but a higher standard when you “require a 13-year-old girl to take off her pants, her shirt, move around her bra so she reveals her breasts, and the same thing with her underpants to reveal her pelvic area.”
This leads Justice Stephen Breyer to query whether this is all that different from asking Redding to “change into a swimming suit or your gym clothes,” because, “why is this a major thing to say strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym?”
. . . “In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear.”
Shocked silence, followed by explosive laughter. In fact, I have never seen Justice Clarence Thomas laugh harder. Breyer tries to recover: “Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever. I was the one who did it? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think it’s beyond human experience.”
Interesting . . . But surely not relevant.
If he were a principal, said Justice David Souter, he “would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search … than have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry.”
Ibuprofen (the drug in Advil) is an over-the-counter drug often taken by teen-age girls to control painful menstrual cramps. It does not “go awry” and kill the unwary.
After the search, Redding transferred to another school. Once an honor student, she dropped out of high school with a bleeding ulcer, unwilling to explain her absences to the school nurse who’d supervised the search. She failed to complete an alternative program, but won admission to college by passing an entrance exam. Now 19, Redding was asked on the courthouse steps what she’d have wanted the school to do differently, Lithwick writes. “Call my mom first,” she says.