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April 22, 2009

Shocking case of Savana Redding – strip searched at school when she was 13

Do you ever find yourself in the midst of doing something, and you realize that no, it’s probably not a good idea? Teachers at a middle school in Stafford, Arizona, are now wishing they possessed the same self-awareness; it may have saved them being sanctioned by the Supreme Court this week.

Two female teachers at the middle school strip-searched a (then) 13-year-old female student after being told by another student that she was secretly carrying banned prescription pain killers. Ibuprofen had been banned from the school campus following an incident with another student, resulting in illness. The student, Savana Redding, was brought into the nurse’s office to be searched.  During the search by the two teachers, Savana was forced to expose her breasts and genitals, according to Savana’s attorney.

When the initial complaint and lawsuit against the school was filed following the incident in 2003, the District judge found in favour of the school, despite the Reddings’ lawyer’s argument that the strip search violated Savana’s rights under the US Consitution’s 4th Amendment,which secures protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The family filed an appeal, which was heard in court on Tuesday. At that time, the lawyer for the school told the court that the strip search seemed appropriate given that previously, another student had taken ibuprofen and had experienced a bad reaction.

What is the real argument here? The school says that the key term in the fourth amendment is “unreasonable” – if they were concerned about the health and well-being of a student, how is a strip search unreasonable? The Reddings say that their minor daughter being forced to expose private areas to two female teachers is unreasonable, and has left her emotionally scarred as a result.

While I can understand the school being cautious after an incident with another student (I worked in childcare, I understand what that’s like!), the argument itself has no real merit. If another student had, for example, eaten a chicken sandwich and suffered a food-related reaction, would the school then strip-search other students reportedly in possession of a chicken sandwich, just in case? Unlikely. In any given school, there are many students with many, many different types of allergies – some known, some not known. If the school is going to crack down and expose their students every time something like that happens, then there are going to be a LOT more lawsuits to come.

Normally I’m in favour of schools having more power over the students, but forcing anyone, never mind a 13-year-old, to expose private areas is overreaching the bounds of reasonable authority. Those teachers are lucky if they don’t end up getting charged with sexual interference; in any other situation, they probably would. While it’s probably safe to say that the teachers, and the school, have learned their lesson from this terrible situation (isn’t hindsight great?!), what about Savana? You are supposed to be able to trust your teachers. How will she ever trust another teacher again?  If the court finds in favour, again, of the school, they will open the flood gates for prison-style cavity searches on the whims of those in charge, and leave the children helpless against what is, in my mind, sexual assault.

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