Searching Students

School officials can conduct reasonable searches of students with neither a warrant nor probable cause. But sometimes they go too far.

Juveniles have rights, but not as many as adults. This discrepancy is nowhere more apparent than in school settings, where officials can search students and their belongings without either a warrant or probable cause.

That isn’t to say that school teachers and administrators can search students with impunity—they must first have some rational basis. Many states, districts, and even schools have rules regulating searches of students, but certain principles apply in most instances.

Searching With a Purpose

School officials aren’t ostensibly looking for evidence for use in criminal prosecution when they search students and their possessions. Rather, they act out of a need to preserve scholastic order and discipline. But evidence that these officials uncover frequently finds its way into the courtroom.

Balancing Act

Although courts have remarked that students don’t leave their constitutional rights behind when they enter school grounds, they afford considerable respect to schools regarding attempts to prevent violence and drug use. Many courts have held that officials need a “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing—something less than probable cause—before they can conduct school searches. Others have phrased the standard as requiring that the search advance the school’s interest in controlling the education environment.

One factor courts routinely consider is whether the suspicion leading to the search is “individualized,” meaning that the official believes that a particular student, rather than an unknown one of many, is up to no good. Other relevant factors include the scope of the school search and the information supplying the basis for suspicion.

“You can’t search everyone like that.” In 2011, a federal court in New Mexico issued a temporary restraining order stopping certain schools from conducting routine pat-down searches at prom and graduation events. (Herrera v. Santa Fe Pub. Sch., 792 F. Supp. 2d 1174 (D.N.M. 2011).) The court found that pat-downs were too intrusive given that the students weren’t suspected of misbehavior and retained some reasonable expectation of privacy at school events. The court said that the school would have to come up with less invasive ways to search the students.

“That’s just too far.” In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court held that school officials searching the bra and underpants of a 13-year-old student violated the Fourth Amendment. (Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009).) Even though they had reasonable suspicion that the student had brought banned drugs to school, there was no reason to believe the drugs created danger or could have been hidden in her undergarments.

“She said what?” When it comes to justifying a search in the first place, school officials don’t exactly need ironclad evidence. In fact, even rumors can sometimes suffice to create “reasonable” suspicion of bad behavior. For example, a Florida appellate court in 2007 ruled that a student’s report that another student “may have been in possession of marijuana” was enough. (D.G. v. State, 961 So. 2d 1063 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007).) Acting on that information, an assistant principle ordered the student-suspect to empty his pockets, which had contained cannabis. The court upheld the “search,” even though the informant wasn’t exactly a beacon of reliability, having previously tipped off the assistant principle with erroneous information.

For more on related topics, see Miranda Rights for Students and Search and Seizure Laws.

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