As school officials, parents, and the general public have grown more concerned about crime and violence in schools, one response has been greater use of search and seizure. If students can be searched for contraband, the logic goes, then not only may problems be averted, but the action may serve as a deterrent. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students do have privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment, subsequent court decisions have shown that these rights can be limited.
The first Supreme Court case to deal with school searches was New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). In that case, T.L.O., a 14-year-old girl at Piscataway High School in New Jersey, was found standing in a haze of smoke. Another girl who was with her admitted she had been smoking, but T.L.O. denied it. The teacher who had found the pair did not believe her, and demanded that T.L.O. see the assistant principal, Theodore Chaplick. Chaplick asked T.L.O. to empty her purse, where he found cigarettes and rolling papers, which could have been used for marijuana. He proceeded to open a zippered enclosure of her purse, where he found a pipe, plastic baggies, some marijuana, and a list of people who owed T.L.O. money. He then read some personal letters he found in her purse.
In the case brought before the Supreme Court, T.L.O. contended that none of this evidence should have been used to punish her, as it was obtained through an unlawful search. While affirming that students do have some privacy rights in school, the Court said that schools, acting in loco parentis (or as parents), must ensure that students are safe and that the educational climate is conducive to learning. Further, the Court maintained that recent increases in crime and violence among youth made it all the more important for schools to intervene. Thus the Court set a new standard for school searches, allowing school officials to search students based on reasonable suspicion, rather than the probable cause needed by police officers to conduct a search. To determine if there is reasonable suspicion to search a student, the Court said that two factors would be considered: whether the search was justified at its inception, and whether the intrusiveness of the search was reasonably related to its objectives. The Court decided that both elements had been met in T.L.O.’s case.
Over the next decade, concerns about student drug use grew, prompting the next Supreme Court case relevant to school searches. This time the issue dealt with school-based drug testing. In Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, the Court held that drug testing of students as a condition of their participation in school sports was constitutional. In 2002, in Board of Education v. Earls, the Court again heard a challenge to school-based drug testing. This time, the district’s policy was to test all students involved in extracurricular activities. Again, the Court ruled that such testing was not a violation of students’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The last school search case that the Supreme Court has heard was Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding in 2009. This case dealt with school-based strip searches. Thirteen-year-old honor student Savannah Redding was stripped down to her underwear and even asked to shake these garments out so that her private parts were exposed. The search was initiated based on the allegation of another student that Redding had an ibuprofen pill that she had not checked in at the school office–a violation of school policy. No drugs were found. The Supreme Court ruled that this strip search was an unconstitutional violation of Redding’s Fourth Amendment rights. In particular, the court noted the trauma Redding felt when she was being searched. The decision did not address other strip searches, however.
In other cases, students have been strip searched based on tips and missing items. In one case, a teenage boy was strip searched because school officials thought his genital region looked larger than normal and suspected that he was “crotching” drugs. Although no drugs were found, a court ruled the search was both justified in its inception and reasonable in scope.
In addition to drug testing and strip searches, schools often employ canine searches to detect drugs and weapons. These searches have been considered lawful. Although the dogs cannot sniff at individual students, they can be lead through vacated classrooms, down hallways with lockers, and in school parking lots. Some recent cases have highlighted the fact that these dogs, however well trained, do not always detect contraband.
As more districts employ school police officers, the situation becomes muddier, in that it is not entirely clear whether the reasonable suspicion or probable cause standard should be used. If police give school officials a tip but do not conduct the search, for instance, the school officials are generally held to the reasonable suspicion standard. This practice can clearly help law enforcement get around the need to have probable cause before police engage in a search. It has been called the “silver platter doctrine,” in recognition of the fact that law enforcement is handing over the evidence “on a sliver platter” to school officials.
Another type of school search involves using metal detectors, either hand-held or walk-through devices. The Supreme Court has not heard a case on this issue, but lower courts have affirmed that metal detector searches in schools are lawful.
Critics have expressed concern that these measures do little to keep schools safe but might instead increase fear and anxiety. Further, even when courts do not find searches to be unconstitutional, some believe they do indeed infringe on students’ privacy rights, with great impact.
- Alderman, E., & Kennedy, C. (1997). The right to privacy. Santa Rosa, CA: Vintage.
- Barnes, R. (2009). Student strip search illegal. Washington Post. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/25/AR2009062501690.html
- Beger, R. (2003). The “worst of both worlds”: School security and the disappearing Fourth Amendment rights of students. Criminal Justice Review, 28, 336-354.
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- Finley, L., & Finley, P. (2004). Piss off! How drug testing and other privacy violations are alienating America’s youth. Monroe, ME: Common Courage.
- Hyman, I., & Snook, I. (1999). Dangerous schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Redden, J. (2000). Snitch culture. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House.