'The Most Humiliating Experience I Have Ever Had' -- Why Is the Supreme Court So Callous About Privacy?
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Savana Redding was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Arizona's Safford Middle School when she was pulled out of class one day by her school's vice principal, Kerry Wilson, and told to bring her books with her.
Rumors had been swirling that a group of students were packing prescription ibuprofen pills -- "contraband" -- and were planning to pass them out at lunch. Redding had been falsely accused of carrying the illicit substance, and Wilson took her into his office for questioning.
She later said in a sworn affadavit:
"Once in his office Mr. Wilson started discussing the importance of telling the truth. I told him I would tell the truth. Mr. Wilson then asked me if I would mind if they searched my stuff. I knew that they would not find anything, so I agreed to the search."
Redding's backpack was searched and, indeed, nothing was found. But the vice principal was not convinced. He ordered her to go with a faculty member to the nurse's office.
"I went to the nurse's office. Mrs. Romero asked me to remove my jacket, socks and shoes. The school nurse, Mrs. Schwallier, was in the bathroom washing her hands. When Mrs. Schwalleir came out, they told me to remove my pants and shirt.
"I took off my clothes while they both watched. Mrs. Romero searched the pants and shirt and found nothing.
"Then they asked me to pull my bra out and to the side and shake it, exposing my breasts. They also told me to pull the underwear out at the crotch and shake it exposing my pelvic area.
"I was embarrassed and scared, but felt I would be in more trouble if I did not do what they asked. I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry."
Redding called the strip search "the most humiliating experience I have ever had." Her mother, who did not find out about the search until her daughter came home from school, sued.
Redding's initial lawsuit was thrown out, but later the ACLU represented her before the San Francisco Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. This past January, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the decision. Oral arguments took place on April 21.
The Savana Redding case has outraged people across the political spectrum. But according to some who attended the oral arguments in Washington last month, when it came time to discuss it, the justices largely seemed not to get why.
"Editorialists and pundits have found much to hate in what happened to Savana Redding," wrote Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick in the hours following the oral arguments. "Yet the court today finds much to admire."
Never mind the amicus brief filed by the National Association of Social Workers, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (among others), arguing that "a strip search of a 13-year-old student by school authorities is an extraordinarily intrusive search" and warning that "strip searches can cause severe emotional and psychological harm to children." (Savana Redding eventually dropped out of school.) By and large, the eight men on the bench kept returning to the same question -- with the exception of Justice Clarence Thomas, who has not asked a question since 2006 -- why is this such a big deal?
"I'm trying to work out why is this a major thing to say strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym, they do fairly frequently," mused Justice Antonin Scalia. "… How bad is this, underclothes?"