Court rules strip search not violation of rights
School district changes policy to discourage
disrobing requirements in future
By Diane Saunders, Staff Writer
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.