Permissible Searches in the School Setting: An Administrator’s Perspective

Today, students from kindergarten up to college face safety threats that were unimaginable a generation ago. School shootings, bullying, beatings, and other issues have prompted many administrators to take a hard stance against criminal activity on school grounds. As part of their strategy to make the premises safe, many administrators resort to conducting searches of their students – either individually or as part of a systematic approach. These searches prompt many questions about the scope of school searches, particularly what types of investigations are permissible under the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions.

If you feel you or your child were searched in violation of your constitutional rights, you should discuss your circumstances with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. You may also find it helpful to read an overview of searches in a school setting.

Synopsis of New Jersey v. TLO

The key case regarding school searches came to the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) out of New Jersey, where a teacher caught two students smoking in a restroom. One student, TLO, was searched by the principal after she denied smoking. In her purse, administrators found marijuana and evidence that she was selling it at school. TLO argued that her Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure were violated, and the case rose through the state courts up to the US Supreme Court in 1985.

SCOTUS ruled against TLO by a 6-3 margin, based upon the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” standard. The question centers on whether the student being searched has a reasonable expectation of privacy under the circumstances. In the majority opinion, the Justices found that students have a reduced expectation of privacy while on school grounds.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy Versus Reasonable Suspicion

The court’s holding in TLO provided some guidelines on school administrators’ rights and responsibilities in conducting searches. SCOTUS recognized that the search was conducted by a public official – the principal – under circumstances that would normally trigger Fourth Amendment rights. However, the Justices held that the school environment is slightly different, so officials do not need probable cause or a warrant to search students.

Instead, school searches are subject to a reasonable suspicion standard. If two factors are met, the search does not violate subject’s civil rights:

  • The search was justified when it began, such that the school official had reasonable grounds to believe that there was evidence of criminal activity or violation of school code; and,
  • The search was reasonable in scope according to what the official was looking to find, and is not excessively intrusive to the student.

For purposes of both factors, it is necessary to take into account the student’s sex and age in determining “reasonableness.”

Discuss Constitutional Search Issues with an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have concerns about a school search that did not comply with the “reasonableness” standard, it is important to consult with a lawyer about any administrative or criminal charges that followed it. Our attorneys at Glasgow & Olsson can answer your questions and explain your rights, so please contact our office to schedule a consultation. You can reach our firm by calling 847-577-8700 or visiting us online.

(image courtesy of Ava Dickson)

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