A Philosopher's Blog

Strip Searching Students

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2009

In 2003 8th grade student Savana Redding was strip searched by school officials. Her case has made it to the Supreme Court.

The strip search was the result of another student claiming that Redding, an honor student who had no history of disciplinary action, was distributing prescription strength ibuprofen. Redding denied having the drug and the strip search failed to turn up any drugs. It did, however, humiliate the young woman.

On the face of it, strip searching Ms. Redding seems to be a clear violation of her rights and a wrongful action. After all, the word of a student caught with drugs can hardly be considered adequate evidence on which to justify such a search. Further, it seems rather inappropriate for school officials to have the authority to conduct strip searches at all. While school personal do act in disciplinary capacities, strip searching seems to be an activity that   should require actual police authority.

Naturally, Ms. Redding’s case is a specific matter but it does raise questions about student rights and the limits of the authority of school officials. Traditionally the courts have given school officials significant leeway. Students have long been subject to restrictions and treated in ways that would not be tolerated outside of the school setting.

Not surprisingly, the school district position is that holding school officials to the legal standard of “probable cause” for such searches would create 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.”

On one hand, this does have some appeal. After all, children are not adults and this can (and has) been used to justify a difference between the rights possessed by children and those enjoyed by adults. Further, the school setting is also a different setting than the outside world and this often requires a difference in such matters. For example, consider the matter of hall passes. Outside of school, 18 year old students are free to go about as adults. Inside school, their movements are restricted by a system of permissions and passes. This is considered an acceptable practice because of the need to restrict student movement within school hours. Like wise, the school setting would justify violating the normal rules governing searches.

On the other hand, this sort of justification can be seen as defective. First, if it is a reasonable principle, then it would justify doing away with probable cause requirements across the board. After all, a case can almost always be made that a search was needed to protect someone from something. However, the requirements for probable cause are in place for excellent reasons. Hence, this principle seems to be unacceptable. Second, while the school setting can be seen as justifying differences in certain matters, the setting does not seem to justify such an extreme violation of a basic principle of law. Obviously schools do need to maintain a safe and orderly environment. But, this should not be taken to justify such things as strip searches. Rights do not simply end at the school door and the proper rule of law must apply even within the walls of schools.

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One Response

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  1. kernunos said, on January 17, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Looks like a large settlement is in order. Next time write an article about stripping students. You know, the normal straight laced student that is only doing it to pay for school.


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