Strip Searches for Students, the Short Version

Sometimes a journalist manages to put everything you need to know about a subject in the first sentence of his report. From Adam Liptak’s article “Court Debates Strip Search of Student”:

The United States Supreme Court spent an hour on Tuesday debating what middle school students are apt to put in their underwear and what should be done about it.

When the answers are so obvious – (a) anything they want to and (b) nothing should be done about it – it’s pretty sad that our justice system struggles to come to a conclusion. It really shouldn’t matter that this was a 13 year old honors student, and that the suspected contraband was prescription strength advil, and that the “information” came from an unreliable tattle-tale trying to shift blame away from herself, or that the strip search found nothing, although those facts do add to the insanity of the situation.

Liptak’s first sentence synopsis is entirely accurate. And the fact that anything about this topic is “debatable” is ludicrous. This is apparently how low we have sunk: what middle school students put in their underwear, and under what scenarios can the school and its administrators go a-peeping.

A part of me feels like poking fun at the school district lawyer for using the weasel phrase “totality of the circumstances” again and again:

(From Page 29 of the oral argument transcript): School District Lawyer: We believe that if teachers were aware of the general practice and it was common knowledge that students did hide contraband in this way and -- that would be relevant to the totality of the circumstances in determining whether this student was following that practice.

(Page 33) School District Lawyer: The nature of the contraband could be relevant in the totality of the circumstances to the suspicion that the student has -- is hiding it in some illicit place as -- Justice Souter, as you noted, certainly there is no practice anywhere, that I'm aware of, of hiding ibuprofen in underwear.

Scalia: So there is a sliding scale for the dangerousness of what you're looking for?

Lawyer: No. It simply means that it's relevant to whether in the totality of the circumstances that school official could have reasonably suspected that the student was hiding it.

(Page 34) School District Lawyer: Well, we believe that, as I said, school administrators have to take seriously all medication like this on campus. My point was simply that where a particular type of contraband is known to be carried in a certain way, that can be relevant to the totality – [interrupted before he can say “of the circumstances”]

(Page 35) School District Lawyer: No, I simply -- the point was simply that if there is some common understanding that a type of contraband is generally secreted in a certain way, and the example is crack, and there is a known understanding that crack can be hidden in that way, that that would be relevant to the totality of the circumstances.

Apparently the “totality of the circumstances” is meant to obscure the forest for the trees. Or maybe that’s just one of those phrases you rely on when your argument lacks substance. I feel like making fun of the weak excuses given on behalf of the school, but honestly this topic is too serious for jokes. You’re OK with this happening to your honor-roll student? Really?

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Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
George - April 23, 2009 8:03 PM

OMG, she might have had crack in her underwear!

I worry for this country.

Kelly - May 4, 2009 5:16 PM

When was the last time you were in a public classroom? I think you should visit the classroom before writing this. The fact of honors or not is irrelevant. Are you making the inncorrect assumption that honors=saint?

yltrop - June 15, 2009 10:24 AM

When last I checked, the public school system was not meant to be a prison. Really, apart from the implied responsibility of temporary guardianship of the students, what of a student's rights to dignity and privacy? How would you feel if the police suddenly approached you and told you to strip because they suspected you had say.. expired perscription advil in your underwear?

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