Do Students Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Student searches are becoming more common as officials strive to make the school environment safe from violence, drugs, and other criminal activity. Administrators are increasing the frequency of searches and authorizing teachers to engage in more invasive procedures, raising questions about when these efforts cross the line. Just recently in New York, a strip search of four 12-year-old girls has raised a public outcry. The school staff forced the girls to remove their clothing while searching for drugs suspected to be concealed on their persons. No parents were alerted before this search was performed, and the young girls understandably reported feeling humiliated and traumatized by the experience. While no drugs were found, no school officials have been punished for their actions, either, though the community is calling for an official investigation into the school’s search policies.

Though they may not be adults, students do have certain rights. If you are a student or parent with concerns about a questionable search, you should contact an Illinois criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation. An overview of whether kids have a reasonable expectation of privacy may also answer some of your questions.

Searches Under the Fourth Amendment

Any time there is a search in a school setting, the constitutional right to privacy becomes an issue based on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Illinois Bill of Rights. Individuals have a right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, in the absence of a warrant or probable cause. Still, these protections only apply in situations and/or settings in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Federal and state law include the person’s body, home, papers, and other items as being protected from unlawful searches.

How the Fourth Amendment Applies to Students and School Searches

The reasonable expectation of privacy is a consideration in school searches, but to a much lower degree than in other places. Teachers and administrators are public officials in the same sense as police, but students have a lowered expectation of privacy, as determined by a number of US Supreme Court rulings. Ultimately, students do not have the same Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures. Instead, the standard is what is reasonable under the circumstances. The question in the New York case mentioned above is, was a strip search necessary under the circumstances?

Statutory Authority on Privacy

In addition to federal and state case precedent on the issue of reasonable expectation of privacy, Illinois lawmakers have also enacted legislation regarding the boundaries of school searches. In the Illinois School Code, school officials have the power to inspect and search a number of places. According to the law, no notice is required, school officials do not need student consent, and there is no need to obtain a search warrant for:

  • Areas that are owned or controlled by the school; or,
  • Personal effects that are left in places owned or controlled by the school.

The statutory language mentions specific places by name, including lockers, desks, and parking lots. However, it is fair to assume that any personal effects within these areas – including backpacks, purses, duffel bags, vehicles in the parking lot, and many other articles are subject to search.

An Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney can Answer Your Questions

Though it may seem that students have no reasonable expectation of privacy under case law or by Illinois statute, there are limits to how school officials can conduct searches in the educational environment. Please contact Glasgow & Olsson at 847-577-8700 or go online to learn more about student rights against unreasonable searches.

(image courtesy of Steven Lelham)

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