WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even some U.S. Supreme Court liberals expressed concern on Tuesday about preventing all strip searches of students for drugs as they heard arguments in a case pitting the authority of school officials against a 13-year-old girl’s privacy rights.
Several justices seemed reluctant to adopt an across-the-board legal rule that all strip searches would be constitutionally unreasonable unless officials had specific evidence a student was hiding drugs in his or her underwear.
At issue is a case in which the teenage girl was forced to disrobe to her underwear as part of a search for drugs at a school in Safford, Arizona.
Liberal Justice David Souter, citing facts similar to the case at issue, asked about a principal who ordered a strip search after one student recently became violently sick while others previously died from taking dangerous drugs.
“My thought process is I would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search ... than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime,” Souter told the girl’s lawyer.
Another liberal, Justice Stephen Breyer, said it seemed logical to him that students who had illegal drugs might hide them in their underwear and school officials generally act reasonably in ordering a search.
“That’s what’s bothering me,” he said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the decisive vote on the court, also seemed more concerned about the drug problem than with student privacy rights.
The case was the first to reach the nation’s high court on the issue of strip searches in schools. It could determine what legal limits, if any, should be adopted on the power of school officials to search for drugs or weapons on campus.
School officials in Safford ordered the search in 2003 of Savana Redding, who was 13 and in the eighth grade.
Following an assistant principal’s orders, a school nurse had Redding remove her clothes and shake her underwear to see if she was hiding prescription-strength ibuprofen, a common painkiller.
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 her pockets did not turn up any ibuprofen. Officials then ordered the strip search.
During arguments, Breyer and Souter also made clear school officials did not have unlimited powers.
Souter asked the school’s attorney whether the strip search could have been for aspirin, which he said poses no health and safety risk. “At some point it gets silly,” he said.
Matthew Wright, the attorney for the school district, drew a line by saying school officials did not plan to conduct body cavity searches for drugs. Those typically are done on the U.S. border or in prisons, he said.
Breyer asked why school officials did not adopt some less intrusive alternatives, such as having Redding change into her gym clothes or calling her mother.
A decision is expected by the end of June.
Editing by Bill Trott