Safford v. Redding in Context: A Brief History of Corporal Punishment at Common Law

Robert Magee,* Lead Writer

I. Introduction

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments in the case of Safford Unified School District v. Redding.1 The case involves the strip search of a thirteen-year-old girl, Savana Redding, on the orders of her school’s vice principal after she had been implicated in a scheme to distribute prescription strength ibuprofen.  The strip involved her taking off all her clothes and shaking out her underwear in front of the vice principal’s female assistant and the school’s female nurse.2 Ms. Redding instituted the present section 1983 claim for violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.3

Though the precise issue today will be whether the Fourth Amendment protects students against being strip searched by school officials and, if not, what level of suspicion must school officials have before doing so, the facts of the case invoke a debate which has murmured throughout the history of the common law and education: what authority does a school official possess over the person of a student?  The treatment at common law of corporal punishment, the physical discipline of students, sheds valuable light on this debate, and provides insight into what the court may be considering during today’s argument.

II. The In Loco Parentis Doctrine

The legal mechanism which allowed corporal punishment by educators against students notwithstanding laws against battery was the doctrine of in loco parentis, the legal fiction that certain individuals, for our purposes educators, occupy the position of parent in relation to students.4 In loco parentis enabled educators to assume the role of the child’s parent when children came under their charge and thus allowing them to inflict corporal punishment in certain instances.  It was fundamentally accepted that parents had the authority to inflict corporal punishment, and therefore so could the educator.5 Continue reading “Safford v. Redding in Context: A Brief History of Corporal Punishment at Common Law”