The Supreme Court Resists Drug War Hysteria

Human Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Safford Unified School District v. Redding is a sign that the High Court's drug war fever may finally be breaking.

Savana Redding, a thirteen-year-old honor student, was strip-searched at school after a classmate falsely accused her of possessing prescription-strength ibuprofen (one pill is equivalent to two Advil). The school's zero tolerance policy prevents students from bringing any medication (prescription or over-the-counter) to school without administrative approval. The vice-principal confronted Redding and searched her backpack. Redding then was forced to remove her clothing and expose her genitalia. No pills were found.

Strip-searching a thirteen-year-old girl for Advil is a flagrant overreaction to the problem of student drug use. The vice-principle was not looking for a suspected weapon: he was after ibuprofen -- something many girls carry to school privately with parental consent to relieve menstrual cramps. He could have easily called Redding's mother and spared Redding the humiliation of having to expose herself.

Redding's Supreme Court victory represents a welcome change from the judicially sanctioned drug war hysteria that has plagued the High Court for the past 25 years, allowing school administrators to run roughshod over the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting youth.

Things looked promising in 1968 when the Supreme Court applied First Amendment protection to schools and told administrators that students do not "shed their constitutional rightsat the schoolhouse gate." However, by 2007, the Court upheld the suspension of a student for displaying a banner at a public event that read "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" because of the banner's questionable connection to the "serious and palpable dangers" posed by student drug abuse.

In 1985, the Supreme Court rightly recognized that schoolchildren have legitimate expectations of privacy at school under the Fourth Amendment. While prisoners do not have legitimate privacy expectations, the Court said, "[w]e are not yet ready to hold that the schools and the prisons need be equated for purposes of the Fourth Amendment." But by 2002, the Supreme Court allowed public schools to drug test students who participate in non-athletic extracurricular activities (think chess club, marching band and 4H) because of "the nationwide epidemic of drug use." Now, administrators can force students who aspire to learn outside the classroom to urinate in a cup under their watchful eye and grant all adult activity leaders access to sensitive student medical information.

Drug war hysteria fuels irrational behavior -- with pernicious results. In 2003, SWAT team officers seized and restrained South Carolina high school students at gunpoint while a police dog sniffed for drugs. The raid was initiated on the principal's suspicion that one student was selling marijuana. No drugs were found. But the danger and trauma that the students endured was already done.

To their credit, eight justices in Savannah Redding's case addressed the traumatic effects of being strip-searched and recognized school districts that have banned the practice under all circumstances -- sending a clear message to school administrators that strip-searching students is not just illegal in many cases, but almost always unwise.

Most immediately, being strip-searched can inflict acute and long-lasting emotional damage on adolescents. Self-conscious youth are vulnerable to psychological trauma, which manifests in depression and anxiety disorders, even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Moreover, by authorizing school officials to strip-search students, educators are transformed into policemen. Such policies erode relationships of trust and hinder open and honest communication between students and teachers, which are essential elements of a safe and productive learning environment that teach adolescents to make healthy life choices.

The purpose of school is to educate and prepare children to inherit the future. Justice William J. Brennan once wrote, "The schoolroom is the first opportunity most citizens have to experience the power of government. Through it passes every citizen and public official, from schoolteachers to policemen and prison guards. The values they learn there, they take with them in life."

The Supreme Court has, at best, a checkered history when it comes to knowing how to protect children from the dangers of drugs. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon teachers and school administrators to be mindful of the lessons we teach our children to help them reach adulthood as healthy and responsible citizens.

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