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Running head: THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

The Legality of Student Searches


Mary Hardman
University of St. Thomas

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

The Legality of Student Searches


In 1967 the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the In re Gault case. This case
focused on the arrest and conviction of a 15-year-old Arizona boy. The court ruled that that
minors do have rights under the Constitution. This case changed the way that people under 18
were viewed under the law. Since this time the Supreme Court has continued to rule on issues
such as privacy at school and freedom of speech as it applies to minors (Jaco, 2008). Garza
(2015, p.47) noted,
Students do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. When
the courts set standards for searches at school they try to balance several things.
First and foremost, they understand that the school must safeguard all students.
They also understand that attending school is mandatory, so a student cant refuse
to attend school to avoid a search based on less than probable cause-or, as we
know it, the reasonable grounds standard courts try to assist teachers and
administrators by establishing standards of enforcement that can be determined
by reasonableness under all the circumstances rather than requiring a technical or
legal standard as would be used by a law enforcement officer in the street.
One must only turn on the evening news or read the headlines on internet news updates to see
that crime and violence are real threats to the safety and education of school children across
America. It is up to school officials to balance the need for safety and order in classrooms with
the need to protect the rights of these same students. This takes careful study and preparation
before an incident occurs.

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

Major Cases and Laws


New Jersey v. T.L.O (1985) is a landmark case concerning search and seizure at school.
This case set a precedent for suspicion based searches. T.L.O. (Terry) was a freshman at
Piscataway High School in New Jersey. A teacher caught her smoking in the bathroom. The
principal asked to see her purse, which contained not only cigarettes, but also a small amount of
marijuana and rolling papers. Terry admitted to selling drugs at school when she was questioned
by the police. She was found guilty of possession of marijuana and appealed on the basis that the
search violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school
saying that students did have an expectation of privacy but it had to be balanced with the
schools ability to maintain a learning environment. This set the precedent that school officials
can search a students property if they have reasonable suspicion that the student is breaking
school rules or committing a crime (Jaco, 2008).
Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995) set a precedent for suspicionless searches. This
occurs when a school picks a certain group of students to search. James Acton was a seventh
grader at Washington Grade School in Vernonia, Oregon. He wanted to play football, but the
school did a drug test of all athletes at the beginning of the season and randomly during the
season. His parents refused to have him tested and James was suspended from play. His parents
sued the school saying there was no suspicion that James was using drugs. They felt this was an
unreasonable search. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school. Once again they felt that
schools have to balance the students right to privacy and the need to keep schools safe. The
court noted that student athletes choose to participate and follow rules other students do not have

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

to follow, such as getting a physical exam and maintaining a minimum grade point average
(Jaco, 2008).
Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009) was an important case concerning the
sensitive issue of student strip searches. Savana Redding was a 13-year-old middle school
student. Another student claimed that Savana had ibuprofen pills. School officials conducted a
strip search finding no pills. The Supreme Court ruled that school officials acted
unconstitutionally and violated her Fourth Amendment rights when conducting a strip search.
The court felt that the accusations were enough to warrant a search of Savanas backpack and
outer clothing, but a strip search is another order of magnitude. Justice Souter argued that such a
search of a vulnerable adolescent intensified the intrusiveness. This ruling informed school
officials that a strip search should only be considered in exigent situations posing immediate
danger to students (Torres, Brady, Stefkovich, 2011).
Gallimore v. Henrico County School Board (2014), addressed the searching a students
cell phone. Two parents claimed that a long haired student was smoking marijuana on a school
bus. The student in question was brought in, patted down, and had his belongings searched. The
Richmond U.S. District Court found that it was reasonable for the school officials to pat down
the student, search his backpack, shoes, sandwich wrapper, and Vaseline jar as these are places
that drugs might be hidden. The search of his cell phone was a violation of the plaintiffs Fourth
Amendment rights as it is unreasonable to expect to find drugs in his cell phone. The assistant
principal lacked a basis for initiating a search of the cell phone so qualified immunity was not
attached (Elkins, 2014).

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

Searches conducted by drug dogs are addressed in the following two cases. In the case of
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Cass (1998) the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld that it
was legal for drug dogs to sniff search student lockers. The school had a policy that school
lockers were the property of the school and were subject to search. Students expectations of
privacy were minimal. When the dogs alerted officials to specific lockers this was reason for
further search and the evidence found in the lockers was admissible in court. In B.C. v Plumas
Unified School District (1999) the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower courts decision that the
random and suspionless dog sniff search of students violated their Fourth Amendment rights
(Stader, 2001).
Current District Policies
Local school district procedures for student searches can be accessed at katyisd.org under
the Katy ISD Board Policy Manual.

Interrogations by School Officials


Administrators, teachers, and other professional personnel may question a student
regarding the students own conduct or the conduct of other students. In the
context of school discipline, students have no claim to the right not to incriminate
themselves.
Searches of Students
Students shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by school
officials. School officials may search a students outer clothing, pockets, or
property by establishing reasonable cause or securing the students voluntary
consent. A search is reasonable if it meets both of the following criteria: The
action is justified at the inception and the scope of the search is reasonable.

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

Use of Trained Dogs


The District shall use specially trained nonaggressive dogs to sniff out and alert
officials to the current presence of concealed prohibited items, illicit substances,
and alcohol. Such school visits shall be unannounced. The dogs shall not be used
with students. Trained dogs sniffing of cars and lockers does not constitute a
search under the Fourth Amendment. The alert of a trained dog to a locker or car
provides reasonable cause for a search. Trained dogs sniffing of students does
constitute a search and requires individualized reasonable suspicion.

Searches of Telecommunications/ Electronic Devices


District employees may confiscate telecommunications devices, including, but
not limited to cell phones, electronic readers, and laptop computers used in
violation of applicable District or campus rules. Confiscated telecommunications
devices may be released to the student at the end of the class period or
instructional day as determined by the campus.
A peace officer may not search a persons cellular telephone or other wireless
communications device, pursuant to a lawful arrest of the person, without
obtaining a warrant under Code of Criminal Procedure 18.0215.

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

Lockers and Vehicles


School officials may search lockers or vehicles parked on school property if there
is reasonable cause to believe that they contain articles or materials prohibited by
District policy. Students shall be responsible for any prohibited items found in
their lockers or in vehicles parked on school property.

Student Drug-Testing Program


The District has determined a need to implement a program of random testing of
students in grades 9-12 as a condition of their participation in competitive afterschool extracurricular activities and/or as a condition of obtaining/maintaining a
permit to park on campus. The foundation of the program is to ensure health and
safety, to serve as a deterrent, to offer students a credible means to resist peer
pressure, and to provide a ready resource for support and assistance to any student
who may be using illegal drugs, performance enhancing drugs, and /or alcohol.

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

Ramifications for School Administrators


Stader (2001) notes needed advice for every school official, Controversy, and litigation
usually results when school officials fail to follow two rules: 1) When in doubt, dont and 2) if at
first you do not succeed, stop (p.9). It is clear that school officials need to educate themselves
ahead of time on where the law stands on student searches. Administration should confer with
legal counsel and prepare clear guidelines well before the school year begins. The next important
step is to inform, inform, inform. All school staff need to attend training going over, in detail, the
policies that are put into place. A third very important step is to make sure that every opportunity
is used to inform the students and parents about the policies. They should be posted on all school
websites. Student handbooks should contain the guidelines and a form should be collected from
each student and a guardian stating that they have read the guidelines. School officials should
also take the time to send a representative to parent organization meetings to present policies and
answer questions. School officials have an important mission to balance protecting the rights of
their students and providing a safe and orderly learning environment.

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

References
Elkins, D. (2014, August 13). Student cellphone search states claim. Virginia Lawyers Weekly
Garza, P. (2015) Feature: Privacy policy: Riley v. california and cellphone searches in schools.
Texas Bar Journal
Jaco, T. (2008). 10 supreme court cases every teen should know. Retrieved from
http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20080915monday.html
Katy ISD Board Policy Manual, Retrieved from www.katyisd.org
Stader, D. L. (2001). Student searches, urinalysis and drug dogs. (). Retrieved
from http://ezproxy.stthom.edu:2048/login?
url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.stthom.edu/login.aspx?
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Torres, M. S., Brady, K. P., & Stefkovich, J. A. (2011). Student strip searches: The legal and
ethical implications of "safford unified school district v. redding" for school leaders. Journal
of School Leadership, 21(1), 42-63. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.stthom.edu:2048/login?

THE LEGALITY OF STUDENT SEARCHES

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