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Warshaw Law Firm, advocating for the educational rights of special needs children, is dedicated to protecting the rights of children with disabilities and children who are the victims of or accused of bullying, and assisting families in crisis through mediation and collaborative divorce.
The increase in school tragedies continues to bring the topic of school safety into the public conscience. Student searches can be a tool for maintaining safe schools, but school administrators must balance this need for safety with the students’ individual rights.
Students in public schools have the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizure. However, this right is diminished in the school environment because of the need to maintain a safe atmosphere where students can learn. While the Fourth Amendment right of people to be secure in their persons generally requires a law enforcement officer to have probable cause for conducting a search, the Supreme Court has held that the school setting “requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search.” New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 340 (1985). Thus, school officials do not need probable cause or a warrant to search students.
Courts have applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to determine the legality of a school administrator’s search of a student. Reasonable suspicion requires the satisfaction of two conditions: (1) there are reasonable ground for suspecting the search will reveal evidence that the student has violated or is violating the law or school rules and (2) the search is reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the search, meaning that 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 the nature of the infraction,” See New Jersey at 342.
Applying this standard recently, the Supreme Court found that a 13-year-old student’s Fourth Amendment right was violated when she was subjected to a search of her undergarments by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that she had brought forbidden prescription and over-the-counter drugs to school. Since there was no basis to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, the Court held that the search violated her Fourth Amendment rights. See Stafford Unified School District, v. Redding, 129 S.Ct. 2633 (2009).
In Redding, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. The school knew before the search that the pills the student was suspected of having in her possession were prescription-strength Ibuprofen and over-the-counter Naproxen. Therefore, the Court found that the school personnel who searched the student must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and he had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being distributed in school, or that the student was hiding common painkillers in her underwear. See Id. at 2642.
In sum, students do have rights under the Fourth Amendment. However, there is no blanket rule as to when the search violates these rights. Instead, the courts will look at the facts surrounding the search as well as the degree of suspicion in order to determine if the search was legal. For more information about search and seizure of students and their rights, please contact Warshaw Law Firm, LLC at (973) 433-2121 or email Julie Warshaw, Esq. at firstname.lastname@example.org.