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Education Law

Searches Of Students And Lockers

The FOURTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution provides that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable SEARCHES AND SEIZURES, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." This provision is made applicable to the states through the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.

The Supreme Court has stated that the BILL OF RIGHTS (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) is applicable to children, even in a classroom setting. To paraphrase the Court in Tinker, students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gates. Does the Tinker ruling suggest that the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches extends to public schools? Must a principal obtain a warrant before searching students or their lockers? Are principals to be held to the "probable cause" standard that is generally required by the Fourth Amendment? These are important questions because evidence of wrongdoing that is obtained in an illegal search is generally inadmissible; that is, it must be excluded from consideration—at trial. The issue of admissibility of evidence is especially critical when school officials are searching for drugs, alcohol, or weapons.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed these questions in 1985, in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 105 S. Ct. 733, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720. The case involved a 14-year-old girl, T.L.O., and a female companion, whom a teacher observed smoking in the girls' restroom in violation of school rules. T.L.O. denied smoking on that occasion and claimed she did not smoke at all. The assistant principal opened T.L.O.'s purse and found a pack of cigarettes. While searching the purse, he also discovered evidence of marijuana possession, use, and sale. He then called the police. T.L.O. subsequently admitted her involvement in selling marijuana to other students, but she sought to have the evidence excluded in criminal court on the ground that the search violated her rights under the New Jersey Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This issue was litigated at three levels in the New Jersey courts and finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that a warrant was not needed for the assistant principal to search T.L.O. and that the reduced standard of "reasonable suspicion" governs school searches. The Court established a two-pronged test of reasonableness: (1) the search must be justified at its inception; and (2) as conducted, the search must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances. The Court weighed T.L.O.'s interest in privacy against the school's need to obtain evidence of violations of school rules and of the law. The result tipped the scale in favor of broad school discretion in searching for contraband in students' pockets, purses, and lockers.

State and federal courts have expanded the scope of T.L.O. since it was decided in 1985. The reasonable-suspicion standard has survived student challenges in searches of lockers, desks, and cars in school parking lots.

A 1995 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court continued the erosion of students' Fourth Amendment rights that began with the T.L.O. decision. In Vernonia School District 471 v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 115 S. Ct. 2386, 132 L. Ed. 2d 564, the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to a public school district's random urinalysis testing program for students who participate in inter-scholastic athletics. In examining the "nature of the privacy interest" at stake, the Court explained that public-school children generally have diminished privacy interests because they require constant supervision and control. Athletes further have their privacy interests diminished, the Court wrote, because they regularly undergo physical exams and routinely experience conditions of "communal undress" in locker rooms. The district's random testing program was held to be minimally intrusive because it required urine collection under conditions that were virtually identical to those that students confront in public-school restrooms. Finally, the Court found several goals of the school district to be sufficiently compelling to justify random testing: deterring drug use in schoolchildren, maintaining the functioning of the schools, and protecting athletes from drug-related injury. The Court's ruling will enable school systems that follow the procedures approved in Vernonia to test student athletes randomly for drugs. It remains unclear, however, whether school districts may conduct drug testing of students who are not involved in athletics.

Will the scope of Vernonia expand in the years ahead, as has that of T.L.O.? If drug problems continue in schools, courts will likely determine that the Fourth Amendment rights of students may be restricted further. Additional limitations on those rights may include random sampling of all students for evidence of drug use.

Drugs are not the only items that are subject to searches by schools, and searches are not limited to high-school students. In Jenkins v. Talladega City Board of Education, 115 F.3d 821 (11th Cir. 1997), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that two eight-year-old girls who were subject to two strip searches could not recover under theories that the teachers who had conducted the searches had violated state and federal law. Both teachers, along with the superintendent of the school district, were protected by qualified IMMUNITY, which applies when a state actor's conduct does not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."

The case arose when a schoolteacher in Talladega, Alabama, suspected that two second-grade girls had stolen money from a classmate. The teacher, along with a guidance counselor, subjected the girls to two strip searches in the girls' restroom at the school. Both searches proved fruitless. The parents of the children later brought an action alleging that the teachers had violated the girls' rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C.A. § 1681), and Alabama law. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama granted SUMMARY JUDGMENT in favor of the defendants, holding that they were immune from the suit as state actors acting within their official capacities.

Although a panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed part of the district court's decision, the full court affirmed the dismissal of the case. The case law governing these types of searches was T.L.O., but the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, according to the majority in Jenkins, was not defined clearly enough to put defendants on notice that their actions were unconstitutional or contrary to the law. For example, T.L.O. did not clarify whether a search of a younger student was more intrusive than one of an older student; whether a search of a girl was more intrusive than a search of a boy; or what kind of infraction is serious enough to warrant a strip search. Without this information, held the Jenkins majority, the defendants could not have known that their actions were unconstitutional. They were therefore immune from suit.

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