I consider myself fairly conservative on the whole law-and-order front. I expect authority figures to show some restraint, but I’m pretty willing to cut them some slack if they’re making a reasonable effort to enforce the rules. The problem with this case is by my reading the school officials involved seemed really unclear on the concepts of restraint, responsibility and common sense. I’m not a lawyer, but this seems to be an ‘unreasonable search’ to me – a girl with no previous disciplinary problems was strip searched because another student who was caught with prescription strength ibuprofen said she got the pills from this girl when questioned by school officials. This was done without the prior knowledge or consent of the parent. Sounds pretty unreasonable to me. Will the court find it unconstitutional? I sure hope so, because strip-searching middle school students without their parents present is just not something I think I want to have happen for any reason.
It’s not just the constitutional issue that has my attention. This case is just filled with so many things that irritate me. It’s hard to know where to start… I guess I’ll roughly follow the sequence of events.
A girl (not the one searched in the case) was caught in school with prescription strength ibuprofen. OK, it’s bad to have prescription drugs that aren’t yours. You ought not to be taking prescription drugs that aren’t yours, even ibuprofen, and I have no issue with the school wanting to enforce this. (On the other hand I am more than a little disturbed to learn that students aren’t allowed any over-the-counter painkillers in many schools, for reasons that if not immediately obvious will soon become clear.) Sure, asking her where she got them in reasonable. On the other hand, this is not yet something to get hysterical about. It is ibuprofen after all; anyone with $10 can get a big bottle of the stuff. As someone who has felt the effects of endometriosis since the age of 13, getting high is not the first thing I’d assume a middle school girl would want with illicit ibuprofen for. In fact, I am reasonably certain that you can’t get high on ibuprofen alone. Of course the school board is claiming as part of their defense that their staff doesn’t have the pharmaceutical knowledge to make decisions about the relative dangers of drugs. OK, but the school nurse was involved in the subsequent search of a girl. So, the school board is saying their school nurse doesn’t know anything about a painkiller as common as ibuprofen. That’s not exactly confidence inspiring.
The girl who got caught with the pills, when pressured, named another girl as having given her the pills. The girl she named has never been in trouble before and was an honor student. This is the girl the case is about. She gets called to the administrator’s office and is perfectly happy to answer questions and to have her bag searched. This is all fine and reasonable. However, when they didn’t find anything there, they then took the girl to the nurse’s office and did a strip search, including having her move her underwear aside, without so much as contacting the girl’s parents first. That is not OK in my book. This was a 13 year old girl going through puberty (a very un-fun and self-conscious time for girls) and they did a strip search all on nothing more than a statement made by another girl who had no incentive to be truthful. The girl says she was traumatized by the search, and I think most girls of that age would be. Her mother reported the school authorities to the police and eventually sued them for damages. That sounds like a reasonable reaction to me. Strip searching a young teenager on such flimsy grounds sounds like child abuse to me, especially since they did not contact the girl’s mother first. The school board says in defending the actions that they were making ‘on the spot decisions’. I don’t think that argument holds water. You had time to march her over to the nurse’s office, but not to call her mother? I’m not buying that one. Oh yeah, and they never found any pills on the girl they searched, so basically it looks like they put an innocent girl through the humiliation of a strip search, but that’s almost beside the point.
The school is arguing that they are the protector of its students' health and safety, which includes protecting students from both illegal and over-the-counter drugs. Apparently that protection does not include protection from searches that are practically sexual abuse. (Strip searching a pubescent girl is not the same emotionally as strip searching an adult female in my book.) The school’s lawyer says, "We just have to ask ourselves, as a policy matter, do you really want a drug-free environment? And if you do, then there are going to be some privacy invasions when there is reason to suspect that those drugs are being dispensed on campus, that they're being used by students." To answer his rhetorical question, I do not want a drug-free environment badly enough to allow my little girl (or anyone's little girl) to be strip searched. If the school district wins the case, it’s something else to consider when I ask myself if I’m willing to send Margaret to public schools. The current zero-tolerance craze does not seem to be healthy. Actually, I suspect that what happened here was that the administrator was so sure they’d find drugs they were embarrassed when the bag search turned up negative, and made the decision to go ahead with the strip search based more on a bruised ego and a need to show how in control they were than any desire to safeguard the students. That would fit with my own experience with school administrators, which was not positive in spite of the fact that I was one of those kids who never got in trouble. At this point I think I’m more worried about protecting my daughter from overzealous, power-mad school officials than protecting her from drugs. I think teaching her that illegal drugs are illegal for a reason will be a lot easier than teaching her that she can’t always trust the people she’s supposed to be able to trust and what to do if someone abuses their authority in various ways.