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School Searches: What Parents, Kids and Schools Need to Know about the 4th Amendment

School Searches: What Parents, Kids and Schools Need to Know about the 4th Amendment

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Updated on Jul 31, 2009

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a partial strip-search of a 13-year-old student in an Arizona school was unconstitutional. The decision capped off a six-year journey for the case, which began in the school nurse's office of the Safford Middle School in 2003 with the search of Savanna Redding for prescription painkillers.

The case should send up warning flares to parents around the country about how easily kids can find themselves in a similar situation.

Though the Supreme Court decided the search, which exposed Savanna's breasts and pelvic region, was unreasonable, the court also ruled that the assistant principal and other school officials involved were in the clear. Despite violating the 4th Amendment, the school officials were protected by a "qualified immunity". Translation? There was no established law in place in 2003 making it clear the search was illegal, so the school officials cannot be held liable.

What's not so clear is what effect, if any, the decision will have on strip searches in schools and on the students, school staff, and parents involved.

"What we are not telling people is that strip searches are now unconstitutional," said Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National Association of School Boards. "Because that's not what this case stands for."

The justices, in their 8-1 decision, noted that the search of Savanna lacked a greater indicator that drugs or contraband would be there. "The court just didn't tell us exactly what that indicia should be," Negron said.

What is much clearer, according to Negron and other school experts who have followed the decision, is what parents can do to make sure their child isn't the next Savanna Redding.

"This case should raise parents' level of concern for the potential of what goes on at school and the situations their children could find themselves in," said Dick Flanary, senior director for leadership programs and services with the National Association of Secondary Principals.

Wondering how to keep your child out of a school search situation?

  1. Catch up on the Conduct Code. It's essential to learn the rules and regulations at your child's school. "We find that parents routinely have not read the conduct codes that they are required to sign at the beginning of the year," said Dr. Stacy Skalski, director of public policy for the National Association of School Psychologists. "How common is it that parents don't know the rules? It's common - it's so common."
  2. Learn More about Medicines. Most schools have rules about what kinds of medicines are allowed, and what medicines nurses at the school must administer. Your school handbook may list medicines that are not allowed, but most schools in the country will allow a school nurse to dispense that medication, Skalski said. If the school rules don't talk about medicines, call up the school if your child has to bring a medicine to school.
  3. Don't Pass it Along. Make sure your child doesn't share his or her medication or hold someone else's medication. It may seem obvious, Negron said. But it's crucial to keep a line of communication open with your child to make sure he knows to make such obvious, and maybe some not-so-obvious, decisions. "Knowledge is power," he said.
  4. Talk it Up. Talk to your child about weapons, drugs and school rules and different scenarios. "The No.1 thing is to go over it with your kid," Skalski said. For instance, what if your kid hears there is a gun in school? What if your child has a headache and wants to use a friend's ibuprofen? By regularly talking with your child, you know in advance how he or she will react in a certain situation at school.
  5. Keep your fingers crossed. "I'm not sure a parent can ever be fully sure that their child is not caught up in some kind of situation," said Flanary, pointing to the degree of social networking that takes place, especially at middle and high schools. "Schools are wonderful, caring places . . . but you still need to be vigilant."
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