The U.S. Supreme Court is about to get involved in one of the most difficult of American subjects - middle schools and the care of their inmates, who, as they emerge half-baked from babyhood, more resemble zoo animals.
Any parent can tell you this in-between age is the most difficult for them and their charges, a sort of purgatory in which the occupants - without constant vigilance - can go from promise to long-term disaster in a split second. It is a land of temptation and experimentation that taxes to the limit the oversight capabilities of educators and often leads them into dangerous, uncharted waters where the rights of young people can be sucked into a vortex by overzealousness.
Now the nation’s highest court will decide whether that is what happened to Savana Redding six years ago when she was a 13-year-old, straight-A middle school student in Arizona.
Despite her honor-role status and a spotless record in deportment, Savana underwent one of the more humiliating experiences imaginable for a budding young woman. After a search of her backpack found nothing, she was summarily hauled into the school nurse’s office and strip-searched to determine if she was carrying pills, specifically ibuprofen, the non-prescription painkiller found in Advil and its generic equivalents.
She was made to expose her breasts and pubic area to the searchers, who determined she was not hiding anything but her modesty.
The catalyst for this severe form of administrative probing aimed at a drug-free environment and escape from potential liability apparently was the word of a male student who said he had received ibuprofen from another girl. When she was found to have the pills, she put the blame on Savana, who, she said, had provided them. The school officials already had heard a complaint from another boy that Savana had had a before-dance party where alcohol had been served. Savana denied both claims, saying the boy who made the complaint had not even been at the party.
The result was a traumatized young lady who never attended classes again at the school, developed ulcers and eventually dropped out of high school. She is at Eastern Arizona University after taking a placement test.
What seems amazing is that the school officials based their actions on the unsubstantiated say-so of two other students who had good reason to lie their way out of the situation. If they think youngsters won’t do that, they are too naive to be in their jobs. Against this, Savana’s unblemished record seemingly counted for nothing.
So for two-thirds of a decade, a determined mother and the American Civil Liberties Union have kept this case kicking around the federal court system as jurists wrestle with the question of student privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. One judge ruled against Savana. However, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finally decided the school had violated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and that the vice principal who had ordered it could be held liable. Now the Supreme Court will try to settle the issue.
As is too often the case, a lack of common sense and caution marked the entire incident. The mother, April Redding, was not called before action was taken. The girl’s record was subverted. The concern about drugs - certainly not unwarranted in most junior high schools - took precedence over the potential damage to a girl who was barely a teenager.
In 1985, the Supreme Court said school officials needed only reasonable suspicion and not probable cause to search a student. But that involved a girl’s purse and not her body. In fact, the court warned against “excessively intrusive” searches given the sex and age of a student.
Quite obviously, this was excessively intrusive and need not have been. There was no reason to believe that a civilized after-school conference with mother and daughter might not have been a better solution given the child’s grades and behavior. Her word should have been given every bit as much weight as that of her accusers. It wasn’t.
Actually, school officials were unapologetic and not even sympathetic. How sad. Administrators need to be sensitive to the fragility of kids this age and proceed accordingly.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.