WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A public school violated the privacy rights of a teenage girl who had to disrobe on suspicion she had ibuprofen pills, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in its first decision on student strip searches.
By an 8-1 vote, the justices upheld a ruling that the school and its officials violated the U.S. constitutional right that protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
The ruling by the nation's high court was a major defeat for school officials who had defended the strip search as necessary for student safety, school order and combating a growing drug problem.
School officials in Safford, Arizona, had ordered the strip search in 2003 of Savana Redding, who was 13 and in the eighth grade. It did not turn up any ibuprofen -- an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication used to treat fever, headaches and pain -- or any other drugs.
"Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution," Justice David Souter wrote for the court majority.
The school's policy prohibits the use, possession or sale of any drug on school grounds, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. A week before the search, a student became sick after taking pills from a classmate and said certain students were bringing drugs to school.
Following an assistant principal's orders, a school nurse had Redding remove her clothes, move her bra to the side and pull her underwear out, exposing her breasts and pelvic area, to see if she was hiding any ibuprofen pills.
The strip search was prompted by an unverified tip from a girl who had Redding's school planner and some ibuprofen. 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. Officials then ordered the strip search.
In another part of the ruling, Souter said the school officials who ordered or carried out the search were entitled to immunity from liability because of uncertainty over whether the right had been clearly established at that time.
Redding said she felt humiliated and violated by the strip search. She said she was embarrassed, scared and about to cry.
Her lawyers said school officials could have kept her in the principal's office until a parent arrived or could have sent her home instead of requiring the strip search.
Adam Wolf, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Redding, hailed the decision.
"Students and those who care about their well-being can breathe a sigh of relief," he said. "Today's ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones. Savana ... is pleased that other students will not have to go through the trauma that she experienced."
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens dissented from part of the ruling, saying they thought a student's right to privacy had been clearly established and the officials could be held liable.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the part of the ruling that Redding's privacy rights had been violated.
Thomas said the ruling "grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge."
Editing by John O'Callaghan