Student Searches – What Standard Applies?

In an attempt to safeguard students and ensure order on campus, it sometimes becomes necessary for school officials to conduct a search for weapons, drugs or other items. When a search occurs, legal issues may arise under the Fourth Amendment, which in general prohibits “unreasonable” searches and seizures. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court set the standard for searches in the school context. The court rejected a rigid “probable cause” analysis which would normally apply in a criminal law context. Instead, and recognizing the role that public school administrators play in supervising student activity, the court ruled that student searches were justified if “reasonable” although no warrant had issued and no “probable cause” existed. The key case on this issue is New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985); see also In re William G., 40 Cal.3d 550 (1985).) One issue left undecided in the T.L.O. case is whether a different analysis should apply if the search is generated not by a school official’s judgment, but at the behest of a police officer. In that situation, should a more formal Fourth Amendment analysis govern? Should “probable cause” be required in such a case? A recent case provides the answer: it depends on the extent of police involvement. “Certainly,” said the court, “the extent of the police role in a student search at a school will govern whether the T.L.O. standard applies. In making this determination, the totality of the circumstances must be examined.” The case is In re K.S. and the court wound up applying the more relaxed T.L.O. standard because it concluded that the search emanated from a school official’s judgment and that the official did not act as an “agent” of the police, but rather, “because of a concern for the safety of the school.” The court noted that students to not abandon their privacy rights at the schoolhouse door. But even so, school officials, having compelled student attendance, have a strong interest in creating and maintain a safe and secure learning environment. In carrying out this duty, there may well be some cooperation between school and police officials; this is especially true, observed the court, “when violations of the criminal law, as well as the student code of conduct, are the basis for discipline.” Note, however, that not all searches will be sustained just because school officials claim they are necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court soundly rejected a strip search of a 13 year old female student, which was conducted by school officials looking for drugs. (Safford Union School District v. Redding 129 S.Ct. 2633 (2009).) Copies of the K.S. and Stafford opinions are attached for your convenience. Slote & Links regularly advises school administrators, public and private schools, and parents on a variety of legal issues and if you have questions about these rulings, or any other aspect of public or private school administration, please feel free to consult our office.