Reading, Writing, Frisking

How far can a school go in searching its students?

Adam Freedman
January 6, 2012

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However, the Court also held that schools are not required to get a warrant to search a student. The Court reasoned that schools need “swift and informal disciplinary procedures” in order to ensure a safe environment that is conducive to learning. The Court held that the school’s need for quick discipline would be frustrated if a teacher had to get a warrant every time a student needed to be searched.

Reasonable Suspicion Will Do

The TLO Court also decided that school officials do not have to meet the usual standard of “probable cause” that is required when the state searches an adult. Rather, schools can search students based on a lower threshold, sometimes referred to “reasonable grounds” or “reasonable suspicion.” 

In a 1995 case called Vernonia School District v. Acton, the Supreme Court held that even the “reasonable suspicion” need not be an “individualized suspicion” in order to justify a search. In other words, a school can search students for things like drugs or weapons even if they don’t have don’t have reason to suspect any particular student has drugs or weapons. They just have to have a reasonable belief that some student might be sneaking such contraband into school. The Vernonia case upheld the legality of school rules requiring mandatory urine tests for school athletes, so that the schools can look for things like drugs, steroids, and, of course, beer.

A particular school search will be deemed “reasonable,” according to the Supreme Court, if “the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and nature of the infraction."   But how to determine whether a search is “excessively intrusive?” Well, it depends on whether the student had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The Winds of Change?

If that was the end of the story, I’d say that Pam and Karen face an uphill battle against their children’s schools because courts have generally held that students have very little expectation of privacy when they enter the schoolhouse. Therefore, school searches are rarely found to be excessively intrusive so long as they are reasonably related to the school’s need to maintain discipline.