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Supreme Court Explores High School Searches, Personal Drama

Sam Guzik

Posted: Apr 24th 2009 10:06AM

Filed under: Washington University, News, National News

Sam Guzik is now a contributor for The Cram, a student news arm of the newly launched To follow his future work, click here.

The Supreme Court is one of the United States's most venerable institutions, packed with nine of the nation's best legal minds, so it makes sense that they might be a little too busy to keep up with popular culture. Comments during the oral arguments in a case earlier this week, though, take out of touch to a new level.

Safford Unified School District v. Redding, heard by the court on Tuesday, asks the justices to weigh in on the constitutionality of strip searching students in schools when administrators have received a tip about hidden contraband but no location-specific information. While sorting through the complex fourth amendment issues, Justices found themselves transported back to their own time in school.

Take Justice Breyer, who wondered how the strip search was any different than what he had to endure while being forced to change for gym class and, less relevantly, while being teased by fellow students.

"In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear," said Breyer while trying to point out that it might not be unusual for children to hide things from teachers in their underwear. As the court broke out into laughter, Breyer quickly added, "Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever."
Putting aside the troublesome assumption that forcing students to change for gym is analogous with forcing a 13-year-old girl to expose her breasts and pelvic region to school administrators, Justice Breyer's anecdote should be enough to start shaking your head at the Court.

Justice Scalia was surprised to learn that students sometimes sniff markers to get high when he asked why the school was attempting to confiscate them from students. "They sniff them?" Scalia said. "That's what kids do, your honor, unfortunately," said Matthew Wright, the representative for the petitioners. "Really?" Scalia responded.

The Court is expected to find against Savana Redding, now 19 (pictured at right), when it rules on the case in June based on the precedent of several other cases that establish a lower standard for administration searches of schools.

During the oral arguments, only Justice Ginsberg--coincidentally the only woman on the court--seemed shocked by the situation, observing the differences between Justice Breyer's experience in the men's locker room and Redding's search.

"It wasn't just that they were stripped to their underwear! They were asked to shake their bra out, to stretch the top of their pants and shake that out!" she said.

According to USA Today, The National Association of Social Workers - joined by the National Education Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children - sides with Redding in a court filing. "Social science research demonstrates that strip searches can traumatize children and adolescents and result in serious emotional damage," they say, citing studies in educational and legal journals.

After the strip search, Savana never returned to Safford Middle School. She transferred to other schools but never obtained her high school degree. She is currently taking classes at a community college and working to prepare for her GED.

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