WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether a public school violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old student by conducting a strip search of her for ibuprofen.
The school argued in its appeal that the Constitution allowed a strip search of a student suspected of having prescription-strength ibuprofen in violation of its policy that prohibited medications on campus without permission.
School officials in Safford, Arizona, ordered the search in 2003 of Savana Redding, who was in the eighth grade. Following an assistant principal’s orders, a school nurse had Redding remove her clothes, including her bra, and shake her underwear to see if she was hiding ibuprofen, a common painkiller.
School officials did not find ibuprofen, which is found in over-the-counter medications like Advil and Motrin. Higher doses require a prescription.
The strip search had been prompted by an unverified tip from another girl who had Redding’s school planner and some ibuprofen pills. She claimed Redding had given her the pills.
Redding denied it and an initial search of her backpack and pockets did not turn up any ibuprofen. The assistant principal then ordered the strip search to be done in front of the nurse and his administrative assistant, both women.
Redding said she was embarrassed, scared and about to cry. She said she felt humiliated and violated by the strip search.
A federal appeals court ruled the school and school officials violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment right that protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
It said alleged ibuprofen possession was “an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one.” Instead of forcing Redding to disrobe, school officials could have kept her in the principal’s office until a parent arrived or could have sent her home.
The appeals court also ruled the assistant principal may be held liable for damages for the search.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school argued that the ruling has alarmed administrators and teachers around the country.
The decision “places student safety and school order at risk by impairing the ability of school officials to effectively carry out their custodial responsibility,” it said.
Redding’s lawyers opposed the appeal.
“A school official simply cannot order a strip search any time a frightened student points an accusatory finger at another student,” they said.
If the school wins, strip searches could become as prevalent as “the common practice of students tattling on each other,” her lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The case could he heard by the justices in April, with a decision likely by the end of June, a court spokeswoman said.
Editing by Vicki Allen