Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Students Have Rights Too

The New York Times recently ran a story about an outrageous strip-search performed on a 13 year old girl in Strip-Search Tests Limit of School Policy.

Savana Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade.

An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of the pills is as strong as two Advils.

The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms. Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear.”

Ms. Redding, an honors student, had no pills. But she had a furious mother and a lawyer, and now her case has reached the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on April 21.

For most of us, this is so wrong on so many levels. One would think that the Constitution protecting us from unreasonable searches and seizures would make this case a slam dunk against the school board. But because schools are charged with the responsibility for and control of its students, constitutional protections that apply to citizens in general are not necessarily applicable to students.

The battle centers on a couple terms of legalese. In general, the Fourth Amendment says that police must have probable cause or a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime to not only make arrests, but also to make a personal or property search.

New Jersey v. T. L. O. (1985) set a special precedent for searches of students at school. The (Supreme) Court ruled that school officials act as state officers when conducting searches, and do not require probable cause to search students' belongings, only reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard in United States law that a person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts and inferences.
This not only applies to body searches but also locker searches. A legal article written for the layperson by, School Lockers: What can a teacher search? goes into the incredible amount of nuance surrounding whether a search in school is considered to be a legal one.

It is difficult to state beforehand whether or not a particular search is reasonable. Some searches are clearly illegal, for example, if a teacher searches a student's locker on a hunch or for no reason. If a teacher suspects that a person has contraband only in his locker, then a search of that student's backpack probably isn't justified either. However, these rules are not hard and fast. Since most search cases are complicated, with factors that justify and nullify the search at the same time, the courts consider each case individually.
It’s hard to look at all of this in an absolutist way. Most of us would agree that if the school had a reasonable suspicion that someone had a weapon, they should be able to search this person. After all, this directly affects the safety of teachers and students. But what about a strip search for someone suspected of carrying prescription strength ibuprofen as in the case mentioned previously? For many of us, this clearly crosses the line of common sense and decency but yet we need an upcoming Supreme Court decision to decide whether all of this was illegal. So ultimately, where do we draw the line?

There is clearly a balance between liberty and security we have to respect. The problem is that too often, government under the guise of providing security can go too far in a grab for power and needlessly undermine our liberties as critics of the USA PATRIOT Act have charged.

Just as importantly, we teach our students in school that it is the valuable protections provided by our Constitution that make the freedom we have worth protecting and when necessary worth dying for. But when students are taught by personal experience that the Constitution sometimes doesn’t apply to them, it is easy to understand how they can become cynical or simply indifferent to the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. For their sake, we should all hope that the Supreme Court in its upcoming decision takes a step towards a more reasonable and balanced position in protecting student rights.

We should remember Ben Franklin who said:

He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.

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