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Student Rights: Can I Get Searched at School?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

Students do have constitutional rights but they are limited. Public school students have an expectation of privacy for their property but can be searched when authorities have a reasonable suspicion of illegality.

Student rights balance the demands of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution with public school authorities' need to maintain school order and discipline. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Still, students -- and particularly in private schools -- can be searched, and more easily than adults.

Probable Cause Not Needed

The standard applied to decide whether a search is legal or whether it violated the Constitution is probable cause, generally. But not so for students. Officers must act on probable cause to search a suspect -- and must often first seek a warrant. Yet for students searched at school a lesser standard is applied.

Public school authorities need only a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to conduct a search of a student on school grounds. In a line of cases on search and seizure in schools, the US Supreme Court has tried to balance constitutional rights of kids with concerns for safety, given the age and vulnerability of school populations, as well as discipline.

Reasonable suspicion is a standard borne of that balancing act. It comes from a 1985 US Supreme Court case, New Jersey v. TLO, stemming from the search of a New Jersey student suspected of smoking in the bathroom.

Smoking in the Bathroom

Administrators found more than just cigarettes on TLO. A search of the child's purse in the principle's office revealed marijuana, paraphernalia, and additional evidence indicating she was selling drugs.

The girl argued that the search was unreasonable and a constitutional violation. The school argued that she had no expectation of privacy in her bag. The high court found a compromise, limiting privacy rights of students and allowing the liberal search standard in light of a school administration's need to maintain discipline and order.

Know Your Rights

The best way to avoid a search is not to engage in illegal activity in school, or anywhere else, frankly. That said, it is also very important to know your rights. Just because you are young, does not mean you have none.

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