Local News

Court rules strip search not violation of rights


School district changes policy to discourage

disrobing requirements in future

By Diane Saunders, Staff Writer

Safford Middle School officials did not violate the civil rights of a 13-year-old Safford girl when they forced her to disrobe and expose her breasts and pubic area four years ago while looking for a drug, according to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

The justices voted 2-1 in favor of the Safford School District on Sept. 21. The decision upheld a federal district court’s summary judgment that Safford Middle School Vice Principal Kerry Wilson, school nurse Peggy Schwallier and administrative assistant Helen Romero did not violate the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights Oct. 8, 2003, when they subjected her to a strip search in an effort to find ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug sold over the counter and in prescription strengths.

Wilson asked Romero and Schwallier to conduct the search in Schwallier’s office. The door was locked, and Wilson did not participate in the search, according to court documents.

The Safford School District has since (in 2005) adopted a policy that states, “Disrobing of a student is overly intrusive for purposes of most student searches and is improper without express concurrence from school district counsel.”

The girl’s mother filed a federal lawsuit against the district and Middle School officials because they forced her daughter to strip down to her underwear, then move her bra and panties in such a way that her breasts and pubic area were exposed. The mother also asserts that she was not notified of the impending search.

In the opinion written by Judge Richard Clifton, “Based on the information available to them, defendants (the Safford School District, Wilson, Schwallier and Romero) had ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspecting that the search of (the girl’s) person would turn up evidence that (the girl) had violated or was violating either the law or the rules of the school.”

Clifton wrote that Wilson and the others had reasonable grounds for believing the girl had ibuprofen based on conversations with two other students.

The other students said the girl possessed ibuprofen and had distributed the drug to others, according to the court report.

Judge Sidney R. Thomas, however, disagreed with Clifton and Judge Michael Daly Hawkins and wrote the dissenting opinion.

“I disagree, however, with the assertion that the search of (the girl’s) person was reasonable in scope,” Thomas wrote. “It was unreasonable to force (the girl), a 13-year-old girl, to expose her breasts and pubic area to school officials.”

Safford School District Superintendent Mark Tregaskes said school officials do not see the Appellate Court’s ruling as giving them the OK to strip search students when they suspect possession of over-the-counter drugs.

“That’s never been the case either before or after this decision,” Tregaskes said, adding that the term “strip search” can be misleading.

He also said parents are usually notified, depending on the circumstances.

Tregaskes declined to discuss details of the case because of the possibility of future litigation. He did say, however, that the district has policies that address possession of drugs by students, including prescription and over-the-counter medications.

A School District policy, adopted in 2005, states, “School officials have the right to search and seize property, including school property temporarily assigned to students, when there is reason to believe that some material or matter detrimental to health, safety and welfare of the student(s) exists. Disrobing of a student is overly intrusive for purposes of most student searches and is improper without express concurrence from School District Counsel.”

School District policies also state that students cannot possess or take over-the-counter drugs without the written consent of their parents. Over-the-counter drugs must be brought to the school in their original containers and be administered by a school official, the policy states.

Under certain circumstances, however, students may administer medications to themselves if they provide written permission from their parents.

Tregaskes said the School District policies are modeled after policies recommended by the Arizona School Boards Association.

 

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