Lawrence Free State High School
Constitutional Limits of Search and Seizure in Public Schools: What Should They Be?
Answering the question of where the line should be on school searches and seizures is complicated because it concerns the interests of several different groups. Each party involved has different objectives and each carries weight, requiring that their interests be taken into account. Essentially, the interests boil down to four major groups who have a vested stake in what the rules are. The schools, parents, students, and law enforcement all have their objectives that must be met and opinions that must be taken into account. Deciding where the line should be drawn really ought to involve a discussion of these objectives and interests with the intent of finding the best middle ground.
On one hand you have the students and parents. A generalized student view of the issue could be summed up as “It’s my stuff until there is a credible threat of violence or harm to another student.” Similarly the stereotypical parent might answer the question with: “You better have a damn good reason to search my kid, but you better well catch someone else’s kid who’s selling my kid drugs or might hurt him.” These two groups are pretty much in agreement on the importance of privacy as far as they are concerned. The main difference in the parent’s and student’s opinions is that parents are also concerned with the possibility that other kids might harm their own child.
On the other side, you have the school and law enforcement. The school’s opinion is along the lines of “We ought to be able to anything and everything necessary to insure a safe educational environment without having to justify ourselves.” And a cop might well answer that “Because of my training and expertise I should be able to do whatever is necessary to enforce the law.” In contrast with the primary privacy interests of the students and parents, the law enforcement and school are primarily occupied with ensuring the school is a safe educational environment. The school though has the added care of being responsible for the education as well as safety. This makes the school much more conscious of any measures which will interfere with the learning environment.
To insure privacy for the sake of parents and students the decision to conduct a search should not be unilateral. This limitation protect against vindictive, arbitrary, or baseless searches. The decision should also represent both the school and law enforcement. Therefore the principal and resource officer as well as the vice-principal, who is usually the one dealing directly with a student, should be the three people in charge of deciding to search a student’s property. Each brings their own perspective, and together they represent enough varied interests that a joint decision would have less bias. To make a decision to search, the three must agree that there is reasonable suspicion, meaning a belief that if a search occurs, contraband would be found. The decision of where to search should also be limited to the specific information justifying the initial search. For example, a tip that a student has a knife in his backpack should not mean a green light on an extended search including the student’s car, simply because the knife was not in the backpack. Contraband would include drugs and alcohol, weapons, pornography, and stolen items. Because of the safety requirements that the public holds the school accountable for, in exigent circumstances, such as a bomb scare, broader searches would be permitted for safety reasons. The same three still must agree that the threat is reasonable and legitimate, and no specific group or individual should be targeted in an unfair way.
To further insure that this is a palatable compromise, several issues could be addressed by additions to this rule. For example, a policy against removing a student in the middle of class or in other ways singling them out in front of others. Parents and students would applaud the effort to preserve a student’s dignity, and the school would support the efforts at not interrupting the educational atmosphere. Since a student’s privacy is also of great concern to a parent, the school should notify a parent and give them an opportunity to be present for the search. If the parent can’t come they should be able to designate someone to be there in their place, and given a reasonable amount of time to do so. These two rules would not apply if there was an immediate safety threat.
This compromise between the four parties involved in the question of search and seizure is the best solution for several reasons. To start with, a collaborative effort typically results in a more creative solution. By looking at what each group would ideally want we can find solutions for issues which would likely go unaddressed if a rule were made unilaterally. Also, when all sides feel their interests have been represented by a solution they are much less likely to take issue with it. Since each side would be pleased with how they were represented, it would go a long way in ending problems with searches and seizures. The most damaging and costly problems with any issues arise from an individual or group which feels they have been wronged by a rule. By allowing for student and parent input the school is protecting itself from possible lawsuits or publicity campaigns which could be directed against it. Such a compromise would please all parties, prevent many future problems, and result in a more fair policy as far as everyone is concerned.
Created: May 3, 2010; Revised: September 2, 2014