Two school cases to go before Supreme Court

January 17, 2009|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide two school cases that could reshape the law in education, one to resolve whether a principal can be sued for the strip search of a 13-year old and the other on whether taxpayers must pay the high cost of a private school for a child with a disability.

A case from southern Arizona will clarify the law on searching students for drugs.

The Constitution protects against "unreasonable searches" by the government, and the court in 1985 extended this protection to students. But school officials also were told by the court that they could search a student if they had reason to suspect she had drugs or had violated other school rules.

Now the court will decide whether a strip search is reasonable. Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a student's right to sue her assistant principal for having ordered her taken to a nurse's office, where she was examined in her underwear. Officials in her middle school were alarmed about the abuse of prescription drugs, including prescription-strength ibuprofen.

Savana Redding, the 13-year-old, was identified by another girl - wrongly, it turned out - as having brought the pills to school. The search in the nurse's office turned up nothing. The girl described the strip search as humiliating, and she and her parents sued the Safford, Ariz., school district and the principal for violating her constitutional rights.

In its 6-5 decision, the 9th Circuit judges said the principal should be held liable for "a grossly intrusive search of a middle school girl to locate pills with the potency of two over-the-counter Advil capsules."

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school district's lawyers said the lower court's ruling, if allowed to stand, will "create enormous confusion for school officials in trying to determine when and how searches may now properly be conducted."

A lawyer for Redding said students should not be stripped of their rights. "It offends both common sense and the Constitution to undertake such an excessive, traumatizing search based on nothing more than an uncorroborated accusation of ibuprofen possession," said Adam Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

A case from Oregon will decide the dispute over special education.

Federal law says schools must provide a "free appropriate public education" to students with a disability. This can include paying tuition at a private school, but it is unclear whether parents first must try a public program before they can claim a reimbursement for the cost of a private school.

Last year, the 9th Circuit said the Forest Grove School District must pay the $5,200-per-month cost of a private program for a child with an attention deficit disorder.

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