Thursday, June 25, 2009

Strip search violated student's rights, Court finds, but no administrator liability

A fractured Supreme Court found today that a student's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure was violated when administrators strip searched her in search of ibuprofen, but that those administrators were not personally liable because the law was not "clearly established" at the time of the search.

The Court's opinion reiterated that the legal standard for student searches put forward by the Court in the TLO case still applies in public schools. That standard requires less than the probable cause normally required when the government conducts a search. However, school searches must be reasonable under the circumstances and proportional to the suspicion that gave rise to the search.

While the Court found that the search of the student's backpack and outer clothing was reasonable under the circumstances of this case, the Court held that the strip search went too far (the administrators made the girl partially remove her bra and required her to fan out her underwear). But because the law was not "clearly established" at the time of the search, the administrators were immune from liability.

This case is significant for a few reasons, one of them being that courts (and the Supreme Court) have increasingly deferred to judgment of school administrators in such matters, particularly where drugs are concerned, as was the case in Morse v. Frederick (that case, admittedly, was about speech and not intimate strip searches).

Parents, students, and administrators should take note of the facts in this case. While the law may not have been "clearly established" at the time of this particular search, this case will help to more clearly establish the factors in an unreasonable search where administrator liability may lie.

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