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Strip-Searching Teens is Out of Control

POSTED: April 24, 2009, 12:00 am

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Tuesday, the Supreme Court gave a hearing to lawyers for a girl who was strip-searched in school when she was 13 on suspicion that she had extra-strength ibuprofen in her underwear. According to the Los Angeles Times, a vice principal at an Arizona middle school in 2003 told a nurse and an aide to take student Savana Redding to an office and to search her and her underwear to see if she was hiding prescription strength Ibuprofen pills after a student had reported her.

Redding and her parents sued saying that the search was "unreasonable." Redding won last year before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the strip-search of an eighth-grader was unreasonable and unconstitutional and said that school officials who ordered the search were liable for damages.

If that ruling is affirmed, it will put a new limit on school searches nationwide. But that is not likely as Supreme Court Justices raised questions about school officials being able to distinguish between non-prescription, prescription and illegal drugs, thus they are less likely to affirm the earlier ruling.

This case raises many important issues for students and parents. How far should school administrators be allowed to go in pursuit of finding illegal substances or weapons?

I can understand that if someone is accused of being in possession of illegal drugs, then perhaps a strip-search is warranted. However, if school officials believe that an incident is that serious, then I think they should refer it to their local police department and have trained officers of the same sex, conduct the searches. Therein lies the problem.

Schools at all levels are invested in protecting the public image of their institutions. Therefore, they try to handle situations that may bring bad press internally. What usually happens is this -- a local incident becomes a national story. Schools should not be conducting strip-searches ever, especially for prescription Ibuprofen. All of the injuries that students in general and student athletes suffer specifically, should knock prescription Ibuprofen off of the list.

While I agree that student administrators cannot always know what drugs are illegal, this is exactly why such matters need to be referred to the local police department. Why aren't they? Schools want to protect their reputations. Even universities have internal "disciplinary" boards that weigh-in on everything from illegal drug use to date rape. These are matters that need to be handled by the authorities instead of Mickey Mouse courts established to protect the image of the university. If the public really knew how many incidences are handled "internally" by school officials at every level, some of them would keep their kids at home.

Instead of insisting that schools turnover such extreme matters to trained authorities, the Supreme Court is going to allow school officials to trample on the rights of students and subject them to treatment that is unacceptable and unnecessary.

What do you think? Should school officials be allowed to strip-search students whom they think are in possession of illegal or prescription drugs?

In addition to serving as Editorial Director of, Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is cultural critic for Creative Loafing and an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College.


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