Strip Searching 13-Year-Olds

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on April 29, 2009

I’m glad I’m not a high school student these days. Sure, things were scary at Bishop Neumann High School in South Philly in the late 60s. Not only were we indoctrinated with a theology that basically reduced us to worthless sinners, but we were also subjected to corporal punishment. I’m not talking light slaps across the face. One time, my Latin teacher, who boasted of having a black belt in karate, threw me against a blackboard for “not paying attention.” My back and shoulder hurt for weeks.

Nowadays, with corporal punishment no longer tolerated in public schools, kids have even scarier things to worry about. As Savanna Redding of Safford, Arizona found out one day when she was 13 and school officials strip-searched her on suspicion of having prescription-strength ibuprofen.

The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court on an appeal from school officials who want to overturn a lower court decision that said they violated the girl’s constitutional rights.

Redding’s got some strong advocates on her side, including the National Education Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.

It seems that Redding’s former high school had a zero-tolerance policy. Many schools have them, but they’re counterproductive, says Kris Krane of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. According to Krane, “Zero-tolerance policies don’t foster trust. The intention may be well and good, but they are dangerous policies.”

Not to mention traumatic. “Social science research demonstrates that strip searches can traumatize children and adolescents and result in serious emotional damage,” according to an expert cited in USA Today.

“A child’s ‘private parts’ are not subject to observation by school officials without significant justification,” said Redding’s attorney, Adam Wolf, who is with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Redding found the search particularly upsetting; she has always been extremely self conscious due to a weight problem. After the incident, she transferred from her high school, and has still not completed her education. She was an honor student at the time she got strip-searched.

Matthew Wright, who is representing the school district, defended the administrators’ actions in court briefs. He said that schools must have “flexibility to respond swiftly…to protect students and maintain order. Rarely will that flexibility be needed more than when school officials confront the threat of drug abuse.”

“Flexibility” is one thing but treating kids like dangerous criminals is another. Drugs may be a problem in schools today, but until our society understands why they’re such a lure for teens, no amount of bullying tactics is going to stop them from experimenting. It didn’t stop my generation.

I wonder how many of those school officials would tolerate their 13-year-olds being strip searched?

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published June 1 by City Lights Books. His website:

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