Courts recognize the role of the United States Constitution's Fourth Amendment in protecting ordinary citizens against unreasonable government searches imposed upon themselves, their homes, private papers and personal property. Defining the extent to which the Amendment applies to privacy rights of public school students, however, continues to pose a legal dilemma. Public schools provide education to millions of children each day in learning environments that are increasingly influenced by the availability of drugs and weapons. The need to limit criminal behaviors and illegal materials on school grounds, often compels officials to order searches of students' lockers, clothing, purses, and automobiles; they require students to submit to random drug tests and examination by drug-sniffing dogs. While the legal system has defined some boundaries regarding searches and seizures in public schools, debate on the issue continues to challenge educators, students and courts of law.
Keywords Confiscate; Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment; Fourth Amendment; In Loco Parentis; Informer; Intrusive Searches; Probable Cause; Reasonable Suspicion; Search; Search Warrant; Seizure
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable governmental searches and seizures on persons, houses, papers, and private property. The Amendment requires government authorities to have probable cause before conducting search and seizure on a place, person, or thing. This Amendment protects the rights of ordinary citizens to privacy.
In the last half of the 20th century, the extent of the Fourth Amendment's protections when applied to students in public schools began to be challenged. Were students "ordinary citizens" under the definitions of Constitutional law? Were they entitled to privacy and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures while on school grounds? Were schoolteachers and administrators under legal obligation, equal to police officers and other government authorities, to show probable cause and obtain warrants prior to searching students and students' belongings?
The pursuit of answers gained momentum following several Supreme Court rulings concerning students' rights to free speech, free expression, and access to free education. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the Court recognized school officials' need to maintain order and control of pupils' conduct, but determined that students did not lose their constitutional rights upon entering a public school facility (Heder, 1999). The ruling protected the rights of Des Moines students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, but it also served as a foundation for future Fourth Amendment decisions involving nation-wide search and seizure practices in schools.
Another factor that influenced the legal definition of students' rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment, was increased availability of illegal drugs and weapons in the United States. In nationwide studies conducted in the 1990s, students admitted bringing approximately 135,000 guns into schools each day; twenty percent of high schoolers reported carrying some type of weapon to school at least once a month (Mitchell, 1998). A 2005 survey of teenagers and parents, conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, found 62% of high school students and 28% of middle school students attended schools where drugs were used, kept, or sold; the numbers represented a 47% and 41% increase, respectively, over the previous three years. As dangers associated with illegal materials on school grounds multiplied, so did the frequency and invasiveness of school-authorized searches and seizures (as cited in Finn & Willert, 2006).
If a principal suspects weapons are located in a student's locker, does he have the legal right to look inside? If a teacher asks a student to remove his jacket and empty his pockets, is he acting in the capacity of "substitute parent" or representative of the United States government? Are metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and strip searches appropriate in school settings?
Until the middle of the 20th century, the answers to such questions were rarely debated. The role of schoolteachers and administrators was generally viewed by courts and families as 'in loco parentis,' -- in place of the parents. Searches and seizures conducted on public school students and their belongings were not considered a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. Just as parents can enter their child's bedroom and look through drawers and closets for particular objects, it was acceptable for public school teachers and administrators to search through students' lockers, purses, and pockets.
According to Heder (1999), the concept of search and seizure as a legal issue in public schools was nonexistent prior to the 1960s. For most of the 20th century, he notes, education-related court battles traditionally revolved around issues of educational quality, roles of parents, and compulsory laws for school attendance.
In the latter half of the century, however, young people's access to drugs and guns prompted school officials to rely on extensive searches of students to uncover suspected criminal behaviors and illegal materials. Continuing to operate under the conventional definition of in loco parentis, schools rejected students' claims of constitutionally-protected privacy, arguing that maintenance of school safety took precedence. In the late 1970s, students appealed to the nation's courts for clarification and support of their Fourth Amendment rights.
The following court cases describe a few search and seizure lawsuits filed by students and parents against schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The cases outline some of the challenges lower courts encountered in defining the application of terms like "government" and "unreasonable" in regard to public school environments. The cases also give historical perspective to the difficulties associated with balancing students' needs for privacy with school officials' duties to maintain safe learning opportunities.
Bellnier v. Lund
In 1977, a teacher in New York learned that three dollars had been stolen from a student's coat pocket and ordered a strip search of all students in the classroom. Students were taken to the school's restrooms, ordered to strip down to their undergarments, and then their clothing was searched by a group of teachers and school officials. Students were allowed to return to their classroom when the search failed to locate the stolen money. A second search was conducted on the students' books, desks, and coats. Again, the missing money was not found. In a lawsuit filed against the school, a district court ruled in Bellnier v. Lund that although the teacher likely had a reasonable suspicion that someone in the classroom had taken the money, the teacher did not have sufficient facts to substantiate the intrusiveness of the search to which students were subjected. The court ruled that specific and reliable information must be available prior to an invasive search of a particular student or students by school officials (Essex, 2003).
Horton v. Goose Creek Independent School District
In 1978, officials at Goose Creek Independent School District in Louisiana were concerned with the increasing numbers of drug and alcohol problems they were encountering among students. In an effort to combat the trouble, school officials hired a company that specialized in drug-sniffing dogs to conduct an unannounced inspection of the students' lockers, book bags, cars, and clothes. The dogs were taken into the schools while classes were in session and sniff-searched the students and their belongings. If a dog signaled that a bag or locker had an illegal substance, the particular student was ordered to submit the article for search. If the dog signaled that a student was in possession of an illegal substance, the student was taken to the school's office and searched ("Horton v. Goose Creek," 1999).
Several students sued the school district claiming the searches violated their Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as their Fourteenth Amendment rights which guaranteed they would not be deprived of property or freedom without due process. The students claimed that searches by drug-sniffing dogs were upsetting and embarrassing; one student detailed her fear of dogs and the negative effect the event had on her ability to succeed on an important examination that day.
The case, Horton v. Goose Creek Independent School District (1982), was initially decided in favor of the school. But upon appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals split its decision into two separate rulings. The court decided that dogs could sniff students' lockers and cars without violating Fourth Amendment rights since such an action was not considered a "search" under the definition of the law. Dogs could not sniff students, however, since the physical act of dogs' noses touching them would intrude on privacy. The court further ruled that using dogs to sniff every...
A high school in Quebec recently came under fire after 28 students who were taking a math test were strip-searched by teachers. The teacher had asked the students to place their cellphones on her desk during the exam, and when one cell phone went missing, all of the students were called into a room, told to strip, and then searched to see who had taken the phone.In the United States, that would have been a good test in constitutionality—and one that the teachers would have failed. What rights does a public school have to search its students? It had some rights, but not unlimited rights.
The question of when a public school can search a student or a student’s locker, backpack, purse, or other possessions first came before the Supreme Court in 1985.
A few girls at a high school girl in Piscataway, New Jersey, were caught smoking in the bathroom. After they were brought to the principal’s office, the principal searched through the purse of one of the girls, known in court documents as T.L.O. (the initials were used to protect her privacy as a minor), and found cigarettes and evidence of drug dealing.
The student was suspended and received a year of probation. She sued the school district, claiming that it didn’t have a warrant to search for contraband and therefore had conducted an unreasonable search.
The Supreme Court, in considering New Jersey v. T. L. O., looked to the Fourth Amendment, which states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Justice Byron White, who wrote the decision of the Supreme Court, said that the Fourth Amendment not only prevents the police from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures, but that “equally indisputable is the proposition that the 14th Amendment protects the rights of students against encroachment by public school officials.”
Justice White stated that “the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.” The court stated that in order to be reasonable, the search could not be excessively intrusive.
Given that the search of the purse was not, according to the court, unreasonable or excessively intrusive, T.L.O. lost her case. That said, the case provides the requirement for schools and the protection for students that schools must show that a search of a student is reasonable given the circumstances.
T.L.O.’s case was at the heart of the case brought by then-13- year-old Savana Redding, who was strip-searched down to her underwear by officials at her middle school who suspected that she was hiding over-the-counter ibuprofen tablets.
Savana sued her school district, claiming unreasonable search and seizure, and her case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the case of Safford Unified School District v. Redding—25 years after the T.L.O. case—the Supreme Court found that Savana’s rights had, in fact, been violated and stated that a search by a school must not be "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."
Given that 13-year-old Savana was accused of having an over-the-counter medication, forcing her to strip was excessively intrusive and therefore unreasonable.
In an age in which school shootings are an unfortunate occurrence and drugs on high school grounds are common, no court has said that schools are prohibited from searching students—even strip-searching students--particularly in cases that involve the suspicion of weapons or contraband on the school grounds.
If you look at your district’s policy, it will likely contain an explanation of when and how it will conduct searches.
As for the Canadian high school that conducted a strip-search after a math exam to find a cell phone, the facts simply don’t add up under American constitutional law to find that such a search would be considered reasonable.
- New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). Read online at oyez.org.
- Safford Unified School District v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009). Read online at oyez.org.
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