Baldwin High School
Constitutional Limits of Search and Seizure in Public Schools: What Should They Be?
Parents sending their children to public schools expect the school to provide a safe learning environment. They do not want students to be able to have drugs or weapons on campus. At the same time, however, having students walk through a metal detector to be inspected by drug-sniffing dogs every morning is considered extreme. Public schools must find a way to balance students’ Constitutional rights of search and seizure with the need for a safe learning environment and the prevention of violence. The limits of search and seizure in public schools should be based on probable cause and reasonable suspicion and should be relative to the alleged crime.
According to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, “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 oath or affirmations...” This means people, including students, cannot be randomly searched or their possessions randomly seized without probable cause. In public schools, only reasonable suspicion is needed to conduct a search of a student’s belongings while probable cause is needed to conduct body searches.
In the case New Jersey vs. T.L.O., the question was whether “probable cause” was needed in schools or if “reasonable suspicion” was enough to warrant a search. The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Byron White in 1985, declared, “The school setting also requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search… the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.” The opinion went on to state, “the accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause.” This meant that the court recognized that students have some expectation of privacy at school but it must be balanced with the school’s interest in providing a safe learning environment.
Determining if a piece of evidence is actually reasonable suspicion is left to school officials. If information about a student breaking school rules comes from a reliable source, that is enough information to warrant a search of a student’s belongings. Searches should be reasonable as long as they are not overly intrusive. If school officials have legitimate reasons to believe that a student has broken school rules, then a search of his/her belongings is justifiable and constitutional.
More intrusive searches, such as body searches, need probable cause to be justified. In the 2009 case Safford Unified School District vs. Redding, a strip search was conducted on a student accused of bringing drugs to school. The questions before the court was whether the search violated the Fourth Amendment based on reasonable suspicion. The opinion of the court, written by Justice David Souter, upheld the case of New Jersey vs. T.L.O. by stating, “We have thus applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to determine the legality of a school administrator’s search of a student, and have held that a school search ‘will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction...” The court ruled that the search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights because, based on the precedent of New Jersey vs. T.L.O., the accused crime did not entail an intrusive search. The school officials had reasonable suspicion to search the student’s belongings, but did not have probable cause for a more intrusive search.
Probable cause is a step past reasonable suspicion. If evidence is found while performing a search under reasonable suspicion, that is probable cause for a more intrusive search. For example, if a student is accused of bringing weapons to school and upon searching the student’s backpack and locker under reasonable suspicion a knife is found, that is enough evidence to warrant a body search. However if a student is accused of stealing money and no evidence is found when searching his/her belongings, that does not warrant a more intrusive search.
Searches should be relevant to the alleged crime. If a student is accused of bringing a weapon to school, that warrants a body search because school is no longer a safe environment. A student stealing money does not justify a body search because the safety of the school environment is not challenged.
To find the balance between students’ Constitutional rights and providing a safe learning environment, school officials should make informing students of their rights a priority. When school officials spend time searching students belongings or persons, they are essentially teaching students to submit to authority. However, many of these situations could be used as learning experiences for students about their rights as Americans. By informing students of their Fourth Amendment rights, if they are ever in a search and seizure situation, they will be aware of their rights and would be able to justify for themselves whether or not the search is reasonable. Students should also always be given the opportunity to speak with their parents before a search takes place. When students know their rights, problems arising from unreasonable searches could be prevented.
Balancing students’ Constitutional rights of search and seizure with the need for a safe learning environment and the prevention of violence will always be a challenge for public schools. By teaching students about their Fourth Amendment rights and by using the standards of reasonable suspicion and probable cause, problems arising from search and seizure situations could be prevented.
Created: May 3, 2010; Revised: September 2, 2014