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Top court to hear teen’s strip-search case

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Savana Redding talks to media in Safford, Ariz., in March 2009. The Supreme Court will hear her case Tuesday.

Savana Redding talks to media in Safford, Ariz., in March 2009. The Supreme Court will hear her case Tuesday.

Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. — Savana Redding was 13 years old when she was told to remove her clothes for a strip search by school officials looking for the equivalent of two Advils. And while the humiliation hasn't diminished in the past five and a half years, she hopes the U.S. Supreme Court can do something about the emotional scar.

The nation's highest court will hear the 19-year-old's case Tuesday against Safford Middle School officials who searched her for prescription-strength ibuprofen pills that a fellow student accused her of having.

"I'm never going to be able to forget about this," says Redding, a college freshman living in her hometown of Safford in rural eastern Arizona. "I'll think about it constantly, but I don't think it'll be as big a burden."

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether school officials violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches. Among the questions to be resolved are whether they had reasonable grounds to believe Redding was hiding pills and whether the pills posed a public health threat serious enough to justify a strip search.

If the court finds the search was unconstitutional, it will have to decide whether school officials can be held financially liable by determining whether it should have been clear to them in October 2003 that the search was illegal.

"Strip searches of children produce trauma similar in kind and degree to sexual abuse," said Adam Wolf, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Redding. "For Savana, she thinks about this event every day, has trust issues with her peers and adults … The search has radically altered her life."

A federal magistrate had dismissed the lawsuit Redding and her mother brought, and a federal appeals panel agreed that the search didn't violate her rights. But last July, a full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the search was "an invasion of constitutional rights."

The court also said vice principal Kerry Wilson could be found personally liable. The Safford Unified School District appealed to the Supreme Court.

The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs. A schoolmate had accused Redding, then an eighth-grade honor student, of giving her pills, and Wilson took Redding to his office to search her backpack.

Redding said Wilson ordered her to go with a secretary to the nurse's office where "they asked me to take off my shirt and pants." She said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.

Redding said she didn't refuse because "I'm one of those kids who does what they're told."

"I was panicky, but I didn't want them to know," Redding said. "I just wanted to get out of there."

No pills were found.

"Her mom was irate," said Wolf. "She feels that her parental rights were taken away and that the school had no business executing the search on her child."

Matthew Wright, the school district's attorney, declined interviews but suggested in a statement that there was a "reflexive action" in media coverage stemming from "a superficial understanding of the facts."

He wrote that school officials sometimes were in an "untenable position" for either trying to enforce drug-free policies or being too lax in intercepting potentially harmful drugs.

A 1985 Supreme Court decision that dealt with searching a student's purse has found that school officials need only reasonable suspicions, not probable cause. But the court also warned against a search that is "excessively intrusive."

Redding eventually left the school and graduated from another junior high. But she dropped out of Safford High School because of unexcused absences. Redding, who developed bleeding ulcers, had refused to see the nurse — the woman who had searched her.

Redding, who left an alternative school without graduating, said she's now introverted and untrusting, has few friends and prefers staying home. She entered Eastern Arizona College after passing an entrance exam despite not having a diploma, plans to major in psychology and wants to "help other people that are like me."

She said she hoped the Supreme Court sets clear guidelines for how school administrators "should go about searches like this."

Safford's school officials "never apologized to me," she said. "They think what they did was right."

But Redding thinks she's won however the court rules. "It's made such a big ruckus in the media that people are going to know, and people won't want this to happen in their schools," she said.