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Are Strip Searches in School Legal?

This just in: the Supreme Court limits strip searches in school. Find out how.

By
Adam Freedman
August 26, 2011

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Today, a back-to-school special! We take a close look (as it were) at strip searches of students.

But first, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

In an earlier episode, I discussed the circumstances under which school officials can search students for contraband. I’m revisiting the issue because the Supreme Court recently issued a decision that gives students considerable protection against the most invasive type of search -- the strip search. In just a minute, I’ll discuss the implications of this ruling for students, parents, and schools.

What Rights Do Students Have?

What rights do students have against the prying eyes of school officials? It’s a controversial issue and I continue to get calls and emails about student searches. So let me start with a brief recap. The Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that students do not abandon their constitutional rights “at the schoolhouse gate,” as Justice Abe Fortas memorably put it. One of those rights is the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures” conducted by representatives of the state.

What Does the Fourth Amendment Say?

Outside of schools, the Fourth Amendment generally means that the police must have “probable cause” to search a suspect. As Justice David Souter recently summarized, that means police may only conduct a search if there is “a fair possibility or a substantial chance” a search will turn up evidence of a crime.

Inside of schools, the Fourth Amendment has been interpreted differently. Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., school officials may search a student’s outer clothing -- such as jackets or backpacks -- even if there is only a moderate chance of finding any incriminating evidence. 

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