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Today the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 (pdf) that an Arizona school district was wrong to strip-search a then-13-year-old student suspected of having over-the-counter painkillers tucked away in her underwear.

There were several factors that undoubtedly influenced this decision, not least that the school district was in the wrong. Savana Redding was a girl, and so considered more vulnerable to nudity than a boy. She wasn’t “holding,” meaning the whole thing was a waste and thus all the more outrageous.The only drug they were even looking for was ibuprofen, which is legal for all ages, commonly used, and largely harmless (though not to me personally, as it happens).

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m finding no real people echoing Clarence Thomas’s warning in his dissent that the decision lets teenagers know they can safely hide things in their underwear, like they didn’t know that already. Most people, it seems, recognize zero tolerance for what it is; a form of control, requiring children to be obedient for obedience’s sake and making sure they don’t step out of line. Zero tolerance means not having to consider students as people with needs and motives, only as cogs in the machine of the school.

It also means gross injustices such as what happened to Redding. While in theory these harsh penalties apply to all students, in practice they’re generally used against those who don’t “fit in” and are considered likely to be on drugs anyway, since after all they’re “bad kids.”

That‘s what the Supreme Court chipped away at with today’s decision: the notion that “bad kids” can be subject to humiliation for vague and flimsy reasons.

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