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Strip Search by School Officials Was Unconstitutional

Last week, the Supreme Court decided Safford Unified School District #1 et. al. v. Redding, the “strip-search” case. The Supreme Court followed the precedent it created in New Jersey v. T.L.O., which set forth the reasonable suspicion standard for school searches, ultimately holding that the strip-search of the student in this case was unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment. Under T.L.O.’s reasonable suspicion standard, a school search “will be permissible . . . when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

While the vice-principal had reasonable suspicion that justified searching the student’s backpack and outer clothing, the facts did not justify the highly intrusive strip-search. There was no evidence to indicate that the pain-killer medications the student allegedly carried were a danger to other students or that she had hidden them in her underwear. Even though the search was unconstitutional, the vice-principal who ordered the search and the administrative assistant and the nurse who conducted the search were protected by qualified immunity because the law at the time was unclear as to the legality of such a search.

Now that the Supreme Court has rendered a clear statement of law on this issue, school officials would likely not be shielded from liability by qualified immunity in the next case. In addition, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court in order to determine the liability of the school board, which may ultimately be held liable. Since the use of strip-searches in the school setting is likely very rare, school districts will not be greatly impacted by this decision, but this is a reminder that they should be careful to ensure that searches are reasonable and not more intrusive than necessary.