Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The Underpants of Justice, Huge and Small
Justice Stephen Breyer’s underpants made the national news last week, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Safford Unified School District v Redding. When Savana Redding was in eighth grade, she was strip-searched by school officials on suspicion that she was hiding ibuprofen in her underpants. Another student had told school officials that Savana might have prescription-strength ibuprofen, and, on no further evidence, school officials made Ms. Redding strip to her underwear, shake out her bra, and pull out her underpants. Supported by the ACLU (and doesn’t this kind of thing make you grateful for the ACLU!), she and her family took the case to court.
The Supreme Court and the media are framing the case as a conflict between security and student rights. On the one hand, students’ right to privacy; on the other hand, the school’s responsibility to put safety first. The Supreme Court seems to be leaning towards supporting security. As reported by the New York Times, Justice David Souter “may have summarized the mood of the court near the end of the argument in the case” with his comment that “I would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search, if we can’t find anything short of that, than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry”.
If the case is framed that way – privacy rights versus security – the arguments go back and forth in a familiar way. But there’s another principle at stake here that media commentary has mostly overlooked. If we look at this situation not as a battle but as a problem for schools to solve – how to stop young people from harming themselves and each other with drugs – both sides could probably agree to the principle of respect for bodies. One of the strongest arguments against abusing drugs (I’m not going to say using, as I’ve taken the occasional ibuprofen myself) is that our bodies make it possible for human beings to achieve marvelous ends, provided we treat them with the respect they deserve.
I’m not exactly calling for decriminalizing drugs, nor am I advocating the “your body is a temple” line. Rather, I am suggesting that adolescents might be more likely to avoid doing dumb stuff with drugs if the adults around them encouraged them to think of their bodies as powerful, respect-worthy, and capable of taking them places they want to go. Some of what adolescents do with their bodies, of course, is unlikely to win the approval of all parents (the obvious example is having sex, but also staying up all night dancing, hitchhiking around Europe, midnight sledding, etc.), but these activities are hardly criminal or a threat to others. And if we want to treat adolescents to respect their own bodies, schools will need to treat students’ bodies with greater respect too. No strip searches.
Also in the news last week was the Obama administration’s response to the Bush-Cheney era torture cases, the separation of young children from their deported parents, and stories of people desperate to hold on to health care after losing their jobs -- all stories of institutional disrespect for the bodies of others. They are a chilling reminder that our legal system respects the bodies of some people but not all. The same is true of schools, where authorities often forget what it feels like to be small and powerless. “In my experience, when I was 8 or 10 or 12, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day (for gym)”, said Justice Breyer. “And in my experience too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear”. The comment provoked much laughter, but it made me imagine little Stephen Breyer at the age of 8. No one is going to strip search Justice Breyer now, but it’s true that schools have not traditionally protected children from bullying, harassment, and other insults to one’s embodied personhood.
Nowadays, of course, advocating respect seems to be a de facto requirement of elementary and middle schools. Often it’s stated as a rule, which has never made much sense to me, since respect can no more be produced on demand than love, or friendship, or happiness. To give the command substance, perhaps schools should “flesh it out”, literally.
Drawing by William Hanifan published in The Huge Underpants of Gloom, Issue Three, 2009