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Safford v. Redding, HH v. Moffett, NN v. Tunkhannock:
Remedies When School Officials Violate a Child’s Constitutional Rights
by Pete Wright, Esq.

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In several recent cases, violations of a child's Constitutional rights were effective strategies to gain access to the courthouse and favorable decisions.

Safford v. Redding, 557 U.S. ___ (2009)

In Safford v. Redding, school officials at Safford School District strip-searched a 13-year-old girl after they received an uncorroborated "tip" from another student that the girl possessed ibuprofen.

Questions presented in Safford v. Redding:

"Whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits public school officials from conducting a search of a student suspected of possessing and distributing a prescription drug on campus in violation of school policy.

"Whether the Ninth Circuit departed from established principles of qualified immunity in holding that a public school administrator may be liable in a damages lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for conducting a search of a student suspected of possessing and distributing a prescription drug on campus."

The Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded in an opinion by Justice Souter, with the Court dividing 8-1 on the Fourth Amendment question and 7-2 on the qualified immunity question.

H.H. v. Moffett & Chesterfield School Bd (4th Cir. 2009)

In HH v. Moffett & Chesterfield School Bd, an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2000), a disabled child and her mother alleged, that a special education teacher and a teaching assistant maliciously kept H.H. restrained in her wheelchair for hours at a time during the school day while they ignored her, verbally abused her, and schemed to deprive her of educational services.

The 4th Circuit held that their conduct "violated H.H.’s clearly established right to freedom from undue restraint under the Fourteenth Amendment, and Appellants are therefore not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law."

NN v. Tunkhannock Area School District (M.D. PA 2011)

In the Complaint filed in NN v Tunkhannock Area School District about a search of the contents of a student's cell phone, counsel alleged that:

“In today’s age, cellular telephones store large amounts of personal and often very private data, including lists of contacts, text messages, photographs and videos. A search of the device is akin to browsing through someone’s address and appointment book, opening and reading letters sent by U.S. mail, and rummaging through a family photo album or viewing home videos. In this civil rights lawsuit, a former student at Tunkhannock Area High School (“TAHS”), plaintiff N.N., alleges that school officials and Wyoming County law enforcement personnel, including the District Attorney, violated her right to privacy in the Winter of 2009 when they seized and searched the contents of her cell phone without the requisite suspicion and probable cause, and then violated her right to free expression by punishing her for storing nude and semi- nude photographs of herself on the cellular phone.”

“Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants’ actions constituted a violation of N.N.’s rights under: (a) the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; (b) the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (c) Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and, additionally, constitute an intrusion into seclusion under Pennsylvania common law."

"Through this Complaint, N.N. asks this Court for the entry of judgment (a) declaring that Defendants’ actions were unconstitutional and unlawful; (b) awarding her monetary damages resulting from the Defendants’ unconstitutional and unlawful conduct; (c) awarding her costs and attorneys fees; and (d) directing that all of the images obtained from N.N.’s telephone and currently in governmental records be destroyed.”

On July 8, 2011, the Court issued an order holding that:

“This case presents the question of whether an action alleging an unreasonable search and seizure of a student’s cell phone containing images protected by the First Amendment states a claim for equitable relief against county officials and a claim for damages against the county. Because it does, the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) will be denied.”

The Court held that prosectutors lost the “absolute immunity” they usually enjoy, and the case against the prosecutor and the county could go forward.

In the Complaint, plaintiff’s counsel argued that staff were inadequately trained and that the prosecutor was acting as a “policymaker” for the county government. That "hook" appears to have kept them alive as defendants.

URLs for the Tunkhannock Complaint and the Order are:

URLs for the HH v. Moffett Complaint and the Order are:

A number of URLs for the US Sup Ct Safford v. Redding case are at:


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Revised: 08/02/11
Created: 07/25/11

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