Michael J. Malone
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2010 Third Place Essay

Lauren Barnes
Baldwin High School

Constitutional Limits of Search and Seizure in Public Schools: What Should They Be?

Schools work hard to ensure the safety of their students. Fire escape routes, tornado drill procedures, security cameras, door locks and numerous other safety precautions are implemented for the sole means of keeping students out of danger. As a result of these measures, most students and parents feel confident that school is a safe place to be. Increasingly, however, public schools’ methods of keeping their students safe are being analyzed with great scrutiny. Parents are beginning to question how far a school will go to ensure that rules are followed. The limits of search and seizure in public schools are often unclear and left to administrative decision. What warrants a search, who can be searched and the degree of the search are all factors to consider in creating a sound policy for search and seizure in public schools.

While the fourteenth amendment does not require schools to issue a warrant to search a student, it is expected that they have probable cause. According to the Youth Advocacy Project’s analysis of Fourth Amendment-related court cases, a search is justified when the administration has good reason to believe that the search will uncover evidence that the student is breaking the law or school rules. In most cases, it is unreasonable for a school to randomly search students’ belongings without cause. The exception to this is in weapons or drug searches. In the case DesRoches v. Caprio, the Supreme Court set a precedent of supporting group searches if they were an effort to uncover objects of immediate danger to the school, such as weapons or drugs. Objects not of immediate threat, such as stolen property would not be cause for a group search. When considering if a search is warranted, it is important for administrators to consider who they are searching in addition to what they are searching for.

School administrators may get tips from teachers or students that give rise to suspicion of rule or law-breaking activity of a minor. These suspicions must be weighed carefully before action is taken. Cases relating to this process, such as Willis v. Anderson Community School Corp., indicate that a search is justified when a tip is reasonable and comes from a reliable source, the administration witnesses suspicious activity or the student has a history of misconduct relating to the supposed offense. From analysis of previous cases, the Youth Advocacy project has determined that it is unacceptable for a school to act on “a student’s status as a ‘rule-breaker’…hunches or rumors… [or] association with wrongdoers.” It is important to be proactive in order to protect the students within a school, but equally as important to remember that students should be made to feel that they are trusted to follow the rules and do what is right.

As soon as a school determines that they have probable cause to search a student, the legal guardian of that student should be contacted. A student has the right to be protected by his or her guardian and all proceedings should be halted until they are present. In Safford Unified School District v. April Redding, the Supreme Court ruled that the school district was wrong to strip-search a student for ibuprofen without her parents’ permission or presence. Not only did the school fail to contact the student’s parents, but they took the search too far. When school officials failed to find the ibuprofen in the girl’s purse, they subjected her to a strip search by a female staff member. The school overstepped their bounds by removing the minor’s clothes in search of a common prescription medicine. If this student had known her rights, she could have protected herself from this situation, insisting that her parents be contacted before any action was taken.

No one can argue against the importance of being safe in a school environment. Students must feel protected within their school in order to focus on learning. When a student’s rights are infringed upon, however, a different type of danger is introduced. It is public schools’ responsibility to ensure the safety of their students while maintaining the rights given to each individual by the Constitution. This can be achieved by establishing a policy which ensures that the methods used to determine what warrants a search, who can be searched and to what degree they are searched are reasonable. To protect against the danger that schools may violate constitutional rights, all students should be educated about the protections that they have under the law. If all of this is put into action, citizens can feel confident that the young people in schools are being protected to the fullest extent.

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Created: May 3, 2010; Revised: September 2, 2014