The Fourth Amendment protects students on a public school campus against unreasonable search and seizures. The courts have balanced a public school student’s constitutional protections against the obligation of the school and its staff to keep the students safe. The standards the courts apply to judge the legality of the actions of the school staff, including school resource officers and their backups, are not as high as what is required for adults. There are different standards that courts apply to determine if the detention of a minor is legal and there is a second standard that they apply to determine if a search and seizure of the minor or his or her belongings is constitutional.

Detentions. A school official may detain a student for questioning on campus, without reasonable suspicion, so long as the detention is not arbitrary, capricious, or for the purpose of harassment. The California Supreme Court addressed the issue of the standard for the court to apply to determine if the detention of a minor was lawful in In re Randy G. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 556. In that case a campus security officer observed two minors talking in an area of the school they are not allowed to congregate in. When the minor saw the security officer, he fixed his pocket very nervously. Some of the lining on the pocket was still sticking out. The officer followed the minor to his classroom. He appeared to be very paranoid and nervous. The security officer informed her superior officer and she was instructed to go back to the classroom with another security officer and ask to speak to the minor. The minor came out of his classroom at their direction and denied he had anything on him. The backup security officer asked him if they could search his backpack. The minor consented. The security officers did and found nothing in the backpack. The minor then consented to be patted down. At that time, a knife was discovered in the minor’s left pocket and discovered to have a locking blade in violation of the law. The knife was turned over to the police and the minor charged. The minor’s attorney argued to justify a detention the school official should have a reasonable suspicion of unlawful conduct to justify the detention. That is the standard the United States Supreme Court articulated for school seizures and searches. The California Supreme Court ruled that to justify a detention of a public school student on campus, the school officials, their school resource officers and backups, their actions will be found to be justified as long as the detention is not arbitrary, capricious, or for the purpose of harassment. This is a lesser standard of proof required to establish a search and seizure of a public school student’s person or belongings.

Search and Seizure. A school official may search a student’s person and personal effects based on a reasonable suspicion that the search will disclose evidence that the student is violating or has violated a law or school rules. This is a lower standard than required to search and seizure of an adult. For the adult, law enforcement must establish probable cause to justify the search and seizure. The United States Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325, ruled a search is justified at its inception if under ordinary circumstances the information constituted reasonable grounds for suspecting the search will turn up evidence of a law violation or school rule violation.

School Requirements for drug testing of all athletes and students participating in extracurricular activities. The United States Supreme Court found a school district policy of requiring all school district students participating in interscholastic athletics to sign a form consenting to drug testing and be tested is constitutional. In the case of Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995) 515 U.S. 646, the Supreme Court found the school district had presented a compelling reason to justify the school district policy of drug testing for all students wishing to compete in school athletics. The school district had presented “special needs” to warrant this requirement in their district. In 2002 in the case of Board of Education of Independent School District v. Earls (2002) 536 U.S. 822, the court found the school district had presented a compelling case to approve the requirement that all students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities consent to and be drug tested. Once again the U.S. Supreme Court found the school district had presented a special need to justify this blanket policy. The Iowa Supreme Court in State of Iowa v. Marzel Jones (2003) 666 N.W.2d 142, followed the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court and upheld a policy of a school district requiring all student lockers to be inspected once a year. Students were informed several days in advance and given a time to be present at their lockers when it is being searched. The minor in this case failed to show up for the scheduled search of his locker. The next day school personnel opened his locker, found a blue jacket, and seized a plastic bag of marijuana. The Supreme Court upheld the yearly inspection and search of the lockers. The school district presented a number of reasons why, for the health and safety of the students, inspections of the lockers was required yearly.

In Thompson v. Carthage Sch. Dist. (1996) 87 F.3d 979, the 8th Circuit upheld a single search of all male students in the sixth through twelfth grades for knives and/or guns was constitutionally reasonable. There was evidence of recent knife cuttings to seats in the school buses and a report of a gun at the school that morning.

Drug Sniffing Dogs and Magnetometer Searches. The courts have upheld the school district bringing drug sniffing dogs onto campuses and in the parking lots of the schools. Magnetometer searches for students entering the school premises have also been upheld.

Cases where searches have not been upheld. The strip search of a female student was found not lawful in Stafford Unified School District v. Redding (2009) 557 U.S. 364. In this case, sufficient reasonable evidence was presented to justify a search of the minor’s belongings and the outside of her clothing but not her underwear. In Jane Doe v. Little Rock School District (2004) 380 F.3 349, the court found unconstitutional the practice of a secondary school district policy of requiring all students to leave their classrooms, leave behind any backpacks, purses or other belongings, and permit school staff to search their belongings. In this case, the teacher had left her purse. A search of her purse revealed marijuana. It was turned over to the police and she was prosecuted. The court distinguished the facts of this case from the cases authorizing the drug testing of all athletes and students participating in extracurricular activities. The fact the school district handbook had this policy set out in it did not establish a waiver of the students’ and teachers’ privacy interests. The school district had not presented a compelling need for such a blanket policy as the school districts had done so in the Acton and Earls cases mentioned above.

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