The Supreme Court today held that a school’s partial strip search of a thirteen year old girl, including requiring her to shake out her undergarments, “exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree,” violated her Fourth Amendment rights. School officials were looking for a prescription-strength ibuprofen (which means, in effect, 2 Advils!).
Justice Souter, writing for the Court, stated that the majority meant to cast “no ill reflection” on the the school official, assistant principal Kerry Wilson, who ordered the search. Well, it should have. The combination of drug hysteria and the tyrrany of petty government officials is rarely a pretty sight. Unfortunately, the Court also held that no monetary damages could be awarded against Wilson and other school officials.
(FWIW, I’m not a Fourth Amendment expert, but as a matter of policy I would never let school officials strip search a child. If the incident is serious enough to merit police attention, say because school officials think the student is distributing heroin, call the police (who, among other things, have some training in probable cause and restrictions on searching without a warrant) and let them handle it. If the incident involves, say, possession of ibuprofen, which is neither illegal [it would be illegal if the girl didn’t have a prescription, but that’s not noted in the opinion, and in practice, prescription ibuprofen is just a double dose of regular ibuprofen] nor dangerous but only against school policy, handle it some other way.)
UPDATE: Two related questions:
(1) If school offcials had conducted a body cavity search, instead of just a strip search, would Justice Thomas have still dissented? I’m not confident that there is anything in his reasoning that suggests otherwise.
(2) If this had been a private school, rather than a public school, and a similar search had been undertaken, also without parental consent, would the private school officials be criminally or civilly liable?