It was outrageous enough when a school administrator decided that it was a good idea to shake out 13-year-old Savanna Redding’s bra to search for demon Ibuprofen, but zero tolerance for drugs means the stupidest thing to do makes sense to grocery clerks. And the Supreme Court’s wimpish, near-apologetic message, that maybe, just maybe, vice principals should not strip search kids absent really good reason, may not have been sufficiently clear.
During a sixth-grade choir class, an assistant principal allegedly ordered a mass, suspicionless strip search of the underwear of twenty-two preteen girls.
What possible exigency could have demanded such extreme action? A murder? A heroin overdose? A threat of a school shooting?
Those allegations describe how $50 went missing during a sixth-grade choir class at Houston’s public Lanier Middle School. Assistant Principal Verlinda Higgins was brought in to investigate. When no money turned up, the school police officer “suggested that girls like to hide things in their bras and panties.” Higgins took all twenty-two girls in the choir class to the female school nurse, who strip searched them, taking them one at a time into a bathroom, where she “check[ed] around the waistband of [their] panties,” loosened their bras, and checked “under their shirts.” The girls “were made to lift their shirts so they were exposed from the shoulder to the waist.” No parents were notified, despite the girls’ requests. No money was found.
Houston school policy allowed invasive searches, because schools have rules.
This document provides a simpler—and broader—rule for deciding when a search is proper:
Students and their personal effects are subject to being searched by school officials, if a school official has reasonable cause to believe that the student is in possession of contraband. . . . If a school official has reasonable cause to believe that contraband is present, he or she may institute a search.
Of course, what constitutes “reasonable cause” is left to the unilateral determination of a school administrator, with the “instruction” of yet more school policy.
Reasonable cause is the standard for a search on school property or at school-related events and is based on the school official’s specific reasonable inferences which he or she is entitled to draw from the facts in light of the school official’s experience. Specific reasonable inferences may be drawn from instances including but not limited to a tip from a reliable student, suspicious behavior that suggests that contra-band is present, a smell indicating the presence of contraband, or a bulge in a pocket, etc. Reasonable cause should not be based on a mere hunch.
Well, that clarifies it, sufficient that a vice principal, at the urging of a school resource officer, is left to her own devices to decide whether today is a good day to strip-search 22 preteen girls.
The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the § 1983 action under a Monell theory of municipal liability due to these school rules.
Applied here, this clearly established law means that Higgins violated the constitutional rights of the twenty-two girls unless Higgins reasonably suspected that the missing $50 cash (1) would be found on that particular girl’s person and either (2) would be found specifically in that girl’s underwear or (3) would pose a dangerous threat to students. For what are perhaps obvious reasons, the parties do not dispute that the alleged search failed all three conditions. It was clearly unconstitutional.
And it required a circuit court of appeals to hold this, because it eluded the vice principal, the school district and the district court judge that such a vague yet permissive district policy that allowed 22 preteen girls to have their panties searched without anything remotely sufficient to suggest that any one of them had the $50 was outrageously unconstitutional.
And even if they did have reason to believe that one of the girls, just one, had stolen the $50, school administrators searching girls’ panties without their parent’s knowledge remains twisted and wholly improper.
If one of the girls stole the $50, then isolate her, call the parents and in their presence with a same-sex administrator, conduct the search. But be damn sure about it before forcing that humiliation and trauma on a child. And if your information is so utterly lacking that you can’t distinguish between 22 girls, then you have nothing close to reasonable cause and your strip search is just perverse. If we care so much about children, let’s start with the conduct of dangerous and harmful school administrators.