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


pMac said...

There is another important consideration here: the aims of public school. One important aim is to teach students to value the good (and humane) principles associated with life in democratic state. Treating children as if they live in a military state by subjecting them to strip searches does nothing to teach a love of liberty and does much to teach a resentment of the state (and probably creates a desire to subvert it). The connection to torture is telling. Just as torture does not get us closer to reliable information, strip searches will not restore order in schools or prevent drug abuse. Far better to educate, as Shuffelton suggests, students in such a way that they feel respected and will in turn respect themselves. Smaller schools where students have good relationships with adults and do not feel institutionalized would be far more effective.
I empathize the the impulse to take extreme measures against drug use and abuse--I was a teacher who dealt with things like this a lot and it is incredibly frustrating. But there are limits to state power, and this is one of them.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

I dunno, Amy. I don't know what respect for one's body has to do with whether or not it is okay to have prescription-strength Ibuprofen on your person. It seems to me that the "war on drugs" is simply mindless, and in its zero-tolerance approach to things, it has little to do with anything reasonable. In fact, "reasonable" and "zero-tolerance" are contradictory, because the latter is supposed to take away administrators' discretion, which is, in the end, all they've got.

PLeggate said...

I curious to hear what people think the roles of public institutions(schools being one)are in respect to the safety of their students?
I am aware of one strip search that was performed on a student in my high school in which a surprisingly large knife was found secured to his person. While I realize there is a world of difference between a knife and an anti-inflammatory pill, there probably has to be some concrete definition of when it actually is appropriate to strip search a child(personally I'm not sure there is).
I also realize that I have the distinction of graduating in the year of Columbine, and that probably influenced my school's decision to perform said strip search considering that emotions related to child safety in schools were at an all time high.