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13-year-old's school strip-search case heads to Supreme Court

  • Story Highlights
  • The justices in January accepted the Safford school district case for review
  • Justices will decide if campus gives administrators greater discretion
  • Administrators strip-searched honor student, 13, looking for ibuprofen
  • The court could now be asked to clarify the extent of student rights involving searches
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(CNN) -- The case of a 13-year-old Arizona girl strip-searched by school officials looking for ibuprofen pain-reliever will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

The Supreme Court has a mixed record when it comes to students' rights.

The Supreme Court has a mixed record when it comes to students' rights.

The justices in January accepted the Safford school district case for review, and will decide whether a campus setting gives school administrators greater discretion to control students suspected of illegal activity than police are allowed in cases involving adults in general public spaces.

The case is centered around Savana Redding, now 19, who in 2003 was an eighth-grade honors student at Safford Middle School, about 127 miles from Tucson, Arizona. Redding was strip-searched by school officials after a fellow student accused her of providing prescription-strength ibuprofen pills.

The school has a zero-tolerance policy for all prescription and over-the-counter medication, including the ibuprofen, without prior written permission.

"In this case, the United States Supreme Court will decide how easy it is for school officials to strip search your child," Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Redding, told CNN Radio on Sunday.

Wolf told CNN Radio his client was traumatized by the search.

"School officials undoubtedly have difficult jobs, but sometimes they overreact -- and this was just a clear overreaction," he said.

Redding was pulled from class by a male vice principal, escorted to an office, where she denied the accusations.

A search of Redding's backpack found nothing. Then, although she never had prior disciplinary problems, a strip search was conducted with the help of a school nurse and Wilson's assistant, both females. According to court records, she was ordered to strip to her underwear and her bra was pulled out. Again, no drugs were found.

In an affidavit, Redding said, "The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had. I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry."

At issue is whether school administrators are constitutionally barred from conducting searches of students investigated for possessing or dealing drugs that are banned on campus.

A federal appeals court found the search "traumatizing" and illegal.

Some parents say older children deserve the same constitutional rights as adults, but educators counter a school setting has always been treated differently by courts, and a ruling against them could jeopardize campus safety.

While a federal magistrate and a three-panel appeals court found the search was reasonable, the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Redding last year.

"Common sense informs us," wrote the court, "that directing a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen ... was excessively intrusive."

The court said the school went too far in its effort to create a drug- and crime-free classroom. "The overzealousness of school administrators in efforts to protect students has the tragic impact of traumatizing those they claim to serve. And all this to find prescription-strength ibuprofen."

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school district said restrictions on conducting student searches would cast a "roadblock to the kind of swift and effective response that is too often needed to protect the very safety of students, particularly from the threats posed by drugs and weapons."

School officials said the court was "wholly uninformed about a disturbing new trend" -- the abuse of over-the-counter medication by teenagers.

The high court has a mixed record over the years on students' rights.

In a famous 1969 ruling, the justices said students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate." But decisions in the 1980s gave administrators greater discretion, including one case that said officials need not be required to have a warrant to search a student's locker. Such a search was permitted if there were "reasonable" grounds for believing it would turn up evidence and when the search was not "excessively intrusive."

Opinions in 1995 and 2001 allowed schools to conduct random drug testing of high school athletes, and those participating in other extracurricular activities.

And in a well-publicized 2007 ruling from Alaska, the Supreme Court upheld the suspension of a student who displayed a large "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner at an off-campus, but school-sponsored, event. The decision did not endorse a broader argument that students in general have limited free-speech rights when they interfere with a school's vaguely defined "educational mission."

The court could now be asked to clarify the extent of student rights involving searches, and the discretion of officials regarding those they have responsibility over.

The case is Safford United School District No. 1 v. Redding (08-479).

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