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School Searches and Student Rights

By Jordan Walker, J.D. | Last updated on

Public school students don't lose their constitutional rights when they walk onto school property. This includes your expectation of privacy and the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Outside of school grounds, this usually means police officers and other law enforcement officials cannot search an adult without probable cause and a warrant. However, because of the special need to maintain school discipline and an orderly learning environment, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the probable cause standard can make it too hard for public school officials to justify the search of a student.

So, what does this mean when it comes to your Fourth Amendment rights as a student? And when is it okay or not okay for school administrators to search you? Here's what you should know.

When Can a Student Get Searched?

Thanks to a 1985 Supreme Court case, school staff does not have to meet the same requirements to search a student as police do when they search adults. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., school staff searched a student's purse after they caught her smoking in a school bathroom. In addition to finding cigarettes, the search also revealed drug paraphernalia.

The student was charged with delinquency. Her attorneys argued, however, that continuing the search after finding the cigarettes violated her Fourth Amendment rights, so the evidence of drug use and sales should be thrown out. The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, where a new standard emerged for school searches.

While the court acknowledged that students don't waive their right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution at school, it must be balanced against the need to provide a school environment that's suitable for learning. Instead of probable cause, the legality of searching a student depends on whether school officials have a “reasonable suspicion" that the student is violating or has violated a law or school rule. A reasonable search must be justified at its inception, and there must be reasonable grounds that the search will turn up evidence that the student violated a law or school policy.

What Does 'Reasonable' Mean?

This is a good question, because what's considered a reasonable search isn't always clear. Typically, this means examining the specific details surrounding the search and deciding whether your school can establish if:

  • Searching you will likely result in evidence of your wrongdoing
  • The search method relates to the purpose of the search without being too intrusive

Yes, this can still be confusing. But luckily, the Supreme Court provided some more guidance in a case about strip-searching students at school. In Safford Unified School District vs. Redding, a middle school student was strip-searched after being accused of giving other students contraband.

The “contraband" in question was prescription Ibuprofen to be exact, so it was not exactly an El Chapo situation. Still, the court decided school officials have to majorly justify the strip search of a student. If your school wants to do a pat down going beyond your outer clothes, such an invasion of personal privacy requires consideration of your age, sex, and the level of your alleged wrongdoing when asking “Is this search excessively intrusive?"

Searching Cell Phones at School

Some state laws address students using cell phones in school, and school boards often develop policies regarding student cell phones that are included in your school's code of conduct. Typically, your teacher, school resource officer, or some other school official can take your phone if you're using it during school hours or disrupting class, then return it to you at the end of the day. However, if your school wants to search your phone, the reasonableness test still applies, and your school must:

  • Reasonably believe you're using or used your phone to break the law or a school rule
  • Establish that going through your phone will turn up proof of your offense

Random Searches and Drug Tests at School

You might be surprised but generally, schools can conduct random searches of the entire student body. But, school staff cannot do this without proving it's absolutely necessary due to some special circumstances, like a bomb threat. Metal detectors are also used by schools across the country to keep weapons out of school. Although challenged as a violation of students' constitutional rights, a handful of state courts have ruled that metal detectors do not warrant Fourth Amendment protection.

Additionally, your school can bring in drug-sniffing dogs to search around school grounds and property. The Supreme Court hasn't specifically addressed whether using the dogs to search a particular student or their belongings is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but this would likely also fall under the reasonable suspicion test.

The Supreme Court has ruled on the random drug testing of students, but only as it applies to student-athletes or students participating in extracurricular activities. Arguments have been made that subjecting these students to random drug tests based on their involvement in school activities is a violation of civil rights. But according to the Supreme Court, it's an effective way for schools to deal with the legitimate interest of preventing and identifying drug use among students.

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