Thursday, April 23, 2009

Strip searches at schools go to Supreme Court

In an Arizona case, administrators were worried about campus safety, while the student just felt humiliated.

When Savana Redding, now 19, talks of what happened to her in eighth grade, it is clear that the painful memories linger. She speaks of being embarrassed and fearful and of staying away from school for two months. And she recalls the "whispers" and "stares" from others in this small eastern Arizona mining town after she was strip-searched in the nurse's office because a vice principal suspected she might be hiding extra-strength ibuprofen in her underwear.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear her case. Its decision, the first to address the issue of strip-searches in schools, will set legal limits, if any, on the authority of school officials to search for drugs or weapons on campus. If limits on searches are imposed, the school district warns, its ability to keep all drugs out of its schools would be reduced.

In this case, said school district lawyer Matthew Wright, the vice principal was concerned because one student had gotten seriously ill from taking unidentified pills. "That was the driving force for him. If nothing had been done, and this happened to another kid, parents would have been outraged," Wright said.

In California and six other states, strip-searches of students are not permitted. Only once in the past has the high court ruled on a school-search case, and it sounds quaint now. It arose in 1980 when a New Jersey girl was caught smoking in the bathroom, and the principal searched her purse for cigarettes.

The justices upheld that search because the principal had a specific reason for looking in her purse. However, they did not say how far officials could go -- and how much of a student's privacy could be sacrificed -- to maintain safety at school. That's the issue in Safford Unified School District vs. Redding.

Savana was an honors student, shy and "nerdy" when the she began eighth grade at Safford Middle School, she says. She first learned she was in trouble when Vice Principal Kerry Wilson entered math class one morning and told her to come with him to the office. He was in search of white pills.

Wilson knew that a boy had gotten sick from pills he obtained at school. And that morning, another eighth-grader, Marissa Glines, was found with what turned out to be several 400-milligram ibuprofen pills tucked into a folded school planner. A few days before, Savana had lent Marissa the folder. The vice principal also found a small knife, a cigarette and a lighter in it. When asked where she got the pills, Marissa named Savana Redding.

These "could only be obtained with a prescription," Wilson reported. Commonly used for headaches or to relieve pain from menstrual cramps, ibuprofen is marketed under brand names including Advil and Motrin with recommend doses of 200 and 400 milligrams. "District policy J-3050 strictly prohibits the nonmedical use or possession of any drug on campus," Wilson explained later in a sworn statement.

Savana said she knew nothing of the pills in the folder. "He asked if he could search my backpack. I said, 'Sure,' " she recalled. When nothing was found, Wilson sent Savana to the nurse's office, where the nurse and an office assistant were told to "search her clothes" for the missing pills.

Savana said she kept her head down, embarrassed and afraid she would cry. After removing her pink T-shirt and black stretch pants, she was told to pull her underwear to the side and to shake so any pills there could be dislodged. It was "the most humiliating experience" of her young life, she said.

"We did not find any pills during our search of Savana," Wilson reported.

When her mother arrived at the school to pick her up, another student called out to her: "What are you going to do about them strip-searching Savana?" Upset and angry, April Redding said she marched to the principal's office, then to the superintendent's office nearby. Both denied at first knowing that a student had been strip-searched. "It was wrong. I didn't think anything like that could happen to my daughter at school," she said, wiping a tear. She later met with the principal but left, unsatisfied: "He said you should be happy we didn't find anything."

Contacted at the school recently, Wilson declined to discuss the case, as did other school officials.

When no one apologized, April Redding sued the school district for damages. Her lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union say the strip-search went far beyond the bounds of reasonableness, especially when there was no imminent danger. A strip-search can be deeply embarrassing and leave an emotional scar, they add.

So far, however, judges have been almost evenly divided over whether Savana's rights were violated. A federal magistrate in Tucson held that the search was reasonable because the vice principal was relying on the tip from another student. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Last year, however, the full 9th Circuit Court took up the case and ruled 6 to 5 for the Reddings.

Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw said the vice principal's action defied common sense as well the Constitution. "A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a 13-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil," she wrote. "A school is not a prison. The students are not inmates," she added, noting that juvenile prisoners are given more rights than were given Savana.

Two of the dissenters agreed the search was unreasonable, but they said the officials should be shielded from suits because the law has been unclear. The three other dissenters, including Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, said the search was reasonable based on what Wilson knew at the time.

Last fall, the school district appealed to the Supreme Court, saying it "finds itself on the front lines of the decades-long war against drug abuse among students." The justices voted in January to hear the case, a good sign for the school district.

In recent years, national school officials say they have heard of only a few instances of strip-searches at schools. After the search, Savana refused to return to the middle school. She did not want to be in the presence of the nurse or the office assistant who she said humiliated her. She went to an alternative high school in Safford but dropped out before graduating. She is taking psychology classes at nearby Eastern Arizona College. She and her mother plan to travel to Washington to hear her case argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday. For Savana, it will be her first trip on an airplane.


I've seen how Britain's education system betrays children - it's enough to make you weep

A new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies is clear about who is to blame for the failure of bright children from poor families to get into universities. The reason is not, as Government ministers such as Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and John Denham claim, class bias on the part of universities. It is bad schools in deprived areas and the failure of this Government to get to grips with the issue.

The report tracked half a million children's education to give a devastating picture of a generation betrayed by Labour. Far from being a motor for social mobility, as it should be, the state school system is entrenching deprivation: youngsters from disadvantaged homes are five times more likely to fail to get five good A to C grades at GCSE than those from affluent backgrounds. As Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector for Schools, says, the relationship between poverty and poor results is 'stark' and poses an ' unacceptable' risk to the life chances of disadvantaged children. 'This cannot be right and we need to do more,' she says.

I have spent the past nine months interviewing youngsters all over the country, as well as visiting schools both here and in America. And my research has confirmed the utter failure of our education system to help those from deprived backgrounds. I have seen for myself that bright students are failed at every stage - at primary, secondary and at university levels.

The reason for this lamentable failure is a toxic mix of politically correct ideology on the part of the teaching unions, a feeble reluctance on the part of the Government to confront them, and a target culture for exam results which is designed to benefit politicians rather than pupils. The damage this has caused is incalculable.

The problem starts early on in primary school, where many pupils from poor backgrounds are no longer learning to read. For ideological reasons, teachers and educationists have shunned traditional phonetic teaching methods - which have a long track record of success - because they are considered a reactionary throwback. During my research, I found that the majority of children in this country learn to read however they are taught, because they have sufficient parental back-up. But at least 25 per cent - usually those from the most deprived backgrounds - do not.

And if their primary schools fail them between the ages of five and seven, when they should learn to read, they never catch up - because no one in those children's seven subsequent years of education (most drop out of school at around 14) addresses the problem. One result of this basic failure in teaching is that last year more than a third of 14-year-old boys in this country had a reading age of 11 or below. More than one in five of them had a reading age of nine. And almost 250,000 schoolchildren - a staggering 40 per cent - start GCSE studies without the ability in reading, writing and maths to cope with their courses.

One young man told me: 'For my first two years of secondary school, I was in the top sets for maths and science, but rubbish at everything else because of my lack of literacy. That kills you in every subject. Even in maths you need to read the question.' Instead of being at university, where he obviously belongs and where as a potential science graduate the economy needs him, this bright articulate 22-year-old lives on benefits in Hastings.

But it is not just teachers. The Government, faced with this increasingly illiterate generation of schoolchildren, refuses to confront reality. Instead, it skews the curriculum to make school exam results look more impressive than they really are - and to make its own achievements look better. Last month, Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, hailed the success of schools reaching a Government target one year early: 60 per cent of 15-year-olds gaining five higher level GCSEs.

But without wishing to take anything away from the pupils' efforts, I would suggest that this 'success' is comparatively worthless because neither maths nor English has to be included among these higher level GCSEs.

What price have young people themselves paid for Jim Knight's moment of glory? John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is clear. The league tables have created perverse incentives. Schools are forced to skew the curriculum for 14 and 15-yearolds towards subjects 'in which it is easier to reach Grade C.'

A-levels create similar perversions. This might benefit schools and Jim Knight, but it has severe consequences for teenagers, especially those from a poor background. It's a crying shame that, in order to be sure of meeting Government targets, schools are deliberately pushing even able pupils away from studying difficult subjects such as science and languages. But it is these traditional subjects that top universities want. 'Soft' subjects - anything with the word 'studies' in it, as one headmaster remarked - do not win places at a good university. Geoff Parks, Cambridge's director of admissions, said: 'We know the school's bright students are on track to get As, but those As are in subjects that essentially rule them out.'

This has devastating consequences for disadvantaged teenagers. They are the most reliant on their schools for correct advice on universities and careers. They must trust that their schools have their best interests at heart. Too often this is not the case - as the educational charity Sutton Trust discovered. An online questionnaire of 3,000 students revealed that half believed there was no difference in earnings between graduates of different universities. Schools had also failed to warn them of the importance of their choice of subject. They had no idea that it would dictate not only which university would take them, but also their future salary.

According to the London Institute of Education, a decade after leaving university, nearly a fifth of graduates from leading universities earn more than £90,000 a year compared with just 5 per cent of those from the so-called new universities.

Of course, very few of the most disadvantaged pupils are lucky enough to get a university place. Government research has revealed that many state schools in disadvantaged areas are failing to bring on their brightest children 'for fear of being branded elitist'. One in seven pupils on a Government scheme to help the brightest children - defined as the top 10 per cent of the school population - even failed to get five good GCSEs.

But the state school student who does manage to get to university faces yet another piece of Government hocus pocus. More than one in five of the 230,000 full-time students entering university drop out. These are mainly working-class students. The Government has given universities almost 1 billion pounds to support these students. But universities are not penalised for recruiting students who do not graduate - provided they recruit even more to replace them and so fulfil the Government target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into further education. Like everything in our smoke-and-mirrors education system, this fails to address the real problem - bad teaching in too many state schools.

While the Government trumpets its achievements in getting so many students into further education, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee last year discovered that university maths students, for example, say they are being forced to quit their courses because they lack basic numeracy skills and so do not understand assignments and lectures. Sir Richard Sykes, then rector of Imperial College London, put it bluntly: 'Yes, there may be thousands of kids out there who come from poorer backgrounds and are geniuses - but how can we take them at 18 if they've not been educated?'

Is it not time the Government stopped playing tricks and started examining why this is?


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