Can Teachers Strip-Search Students on School Grounds?


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Arguably one of the most important rights that the U.S. Constitution endows every American with are those protected under the Fourth Amendment. Broadly applying to the preservation of an individual’s right to privacy. Explicitly stated under the Fourth Amendment:


Amendment IV

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, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


However, it can be assumed that like most Constitutional rights that the Fourth Amendment is not without limitation. In a similar vein to how free speech is not an unlimited right under the First Amendment. Overt slander, threats, and language intended to incite a fight are examples of speech that is outside of constitutional protection. As can be expected, our right to privacy is not unfettered.


Does the question become whether school students are protected under the Fourth Amendment while school is in session? The answer to this question is far from linear due to the fact there are a few factors that make this question more complicated. For one, most of the students are under the age of majority. Effectively school staff operates under the doctrine of Parentis Loco in which teachers and administrators are to act in the best interest of the students. Due to the students being separated from their parents. It becomes problematic when we attempt to delineate a fine line between maintaining the privacy of the student and looking out for their best interests. Another consideration is that public schools are technically an extension of the government. Making it more imperative that school officials do not deprive students of their Constitutional rights.


What guidelines do school officials have for determining the line between Constitutional and unconstitutional searching for a student? Whether it be on their person, backpack, or the locker that they use during school hours? The litmus test generally exercised by the courts in New Jersey V. TLO  a ruling dating back to the 1980s. The facts of the case detail how a female student was caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom by a faculty member. The student was subsequently sent to the principal’s office where her purse was further inspected. Upon searching the student’s purse there was a small amount of Marijuana found and evidence of drug sales. The defense attempted to argue that TLO had her Fourth Amendment rights violated through the search. The court ruled that the search was reasonable in light of the contextual circumstances. New Jersey V. TLO setup a two-part test for determining whether a search on school grounds is “reasonable”.  Part one is “whether the … the action was justified at its inception..”  The second portion of the test is that “… one must consider whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place..” (P.249).


Unfortunately, even with an established test case, the definition of acceptable conduct in searching students on school grounds is murky. There are various cases where applying the test in similar circumstances has led to some notable variance in the results (P.249). Making rulings using this test heavily contingent on context. For example, a Pennsylvania court ruled against a locker search conducted by school officials after having seen the student taking a pack of cigarettes out of the locker. The school found Marijuana “joints” in the pocket of a jacket inside of the locker. The court citing that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the pocket of the student’s jacket (P.249).


The exorbitant amount of nuance applied in the New Jersey V. TLO test makes the prospect of school-sanctioned strip-searches horrifying. Depending on the context it is permissible. It would be shrewd of teachers and school administrators to exercise a profound amount of caution before restoring to such drastic means. As one can imagine, if there is a lack of clarity in applying this test to less invasive searches, the same problems surface in the event of strip-searches. For example, in the 1991 case Williams V. Ellington the court ruled that the search was reasonable in light of the circumstances (P. 251). Even when faced with the threat of drug use is it ever proper to have a teacher strip-search an underage student? Any attempt to answer that question will rapidly degenerate into an uncomfortable debate. It would be reasonable to be leery due to the amount of flexibility in the interpretation of the test. Potentially leading us down the path to some grotesque abuses.


A more recent case demonstrates that the courts will not always favor the schools. The 2009 case Safford Unified School District V. Redding details an incident that occurred in an Arizona middle school.  A fellow student reported to the teacher that a female student had an over-the-counter pain reliever. Being in direct violation of the school’s drug policy. In an attempt to confiscate any of the purported ibuprofen the student was in possession of the thirteen-year-old student who was strip-searched. Fortunately, the court did rule in favor of the student, agree that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. There are a few circumstantial considerations to note to truly understand exactly how negligent this course of action was. First, in the Common Law tradition children are not view has had the same criminal capacity as adults until they are fourteen (P.252). In this incident, the child was under the age of fourteen. Also, there isn’t a sane judge out there that would find it to be a reasonable exercise of power to strip-search a young teenager over an uncontrolled pain reliever. Perhaps making such a statement is demonstrating too much faith in humanity. Such extreme measures demonstrate negligently poor judgment. The kind of judgment that should disqualify someone from working with children.

The Paradox of Atheism


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Many proponents of Atheism hold it as the only perspective on religion free of dogma. The irony is that Atheism has it’s own orthodoxies that are held as strongly as a fervent belief in a higher power. Not all  Atheists fall into the “free thinker” or the “enlightened individual” trap, however, there is a number that does. Failing to see some of the parallels between devout atheism and organized religion.  The one characteristic shared by an atheist and a Baptist Minister is their immutable stance on religious faith. Being easily disposed to write off any contrary perspective as being false and ill-advised. The three main commonalities between atheism and religion are a collective association, possessing fixed views on belief in a higher power, and the proclivity to proliferate their religious perspective.


Rarely is atheism criticized from a neutral standpoint? Meaning generally it is critiqued concerning some form of religious precepts. This essay is not intended to be a polemic defense of religion over atheism but rather aims to observantly point out areas of inconsistencies. Atheism is presented as a dynamic belief system. The natural gradation in the development of human understanding and a departure from the ancient proclivities of magical thinking. It still suffers from many faults. Unbending commitment to a set of beliefs. Atheism even exhibits attributes of tribalism which can have dangerous consequences. One needs to look no further than the present political climate to witness the venomous repercussions of in-group conformity.


Collective Association:


Humanist groups are collectives of nonbelievers that meet periodically. Generally focusing the social gathering around discussion or other social activities. The number of activities that could encompass one of these gatherings are endless. Ranging from meeting at a coffee shop to bowling and beyond. It is reasonable to suggest that these groups are merely a surrogate for the religious communities previously forfeited by non-belief. Religion does provide a cohesive glue that voluntarily keeps communal bonds intact. This was an observation that the great political theorist Alexis De Tocqueville made back in the nineteenth century.


Considering that many atheists still grew up in a religious background, it isn’t surprising that many yearn to be a part of a community of like-minded people. Without the formal institution of an organized church, this endeavor has previously been difficult. In the age of the internet, many of the logistical costs of organizing have been minimized. Technological advancement coupled with a decline in religiosity in the United States has created fertile ground for the spread of humanist groups. As America continues to shed its Christian identity with declines in religious observance the societal acceptance of such associations increases.


The most perplexing aspect of these groups they are essentially church groups. Yet, few if any of the members of a humanist group would call it a congregation. It is a group of people drawn together by the commonly shared religious convictions. Those convictions may be a lack of faith in God, nevertheless, still are religious beliefs. It is merely the reciprocal of the traditional beliefs of a religious association. A humanist group is a community of nonbelievers. It is the embodiment of the church community that they had abandoned with losing their faith.  Somewhat analogous to converting to another religion and joining a different community of believers. Minus the immense amount of formal ceremonial procedures.


The Irreverent Dogma: The Freethinker Paradox 


Much of the rhetoric shrouding atheistic thought is fixated on purportedly on free thinking. Atheists by definition hold an inflexible view of the existence of a higher power. They have also seemed to have substituted faith in religion for an unquestionable belief in the authority of science. To be an atheist you must hold the rigid stance that there are no deity/deities that exist in the universe. If you do not conform to this crucial pillar of atheism you cannot be a part of the club. It is important to acknowledge that this argument is tautological. However, that is not grounds for disqualifying this point.  Anytime we opt to adopt a specific label whether it is a political designation, sports team affiliation, etc. there are certain characteristics we are expected to conform to.  Can an individual be a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and not even like the team?  No. Therefore, to be a part of this subset of society you must conform to this virtue of group identity. To be an atheist you must capitulate some of your capacity towards freethinking. If you question the doctrine of non-belief you are no longer categorical an atheist. This parallels the fact that a Christian cannot be a Christian without believing in god. It is merely the same premise, just inverted.


Another issue that the free thinker designation that many nonbelievers adorn themselves is that their lack of belief mirrors the intensity of the belief of religiously observant individuals. It takes a lot of faith to make a definite claim about something that cannot be falsified. This goes back to the conundrum presented before us in Pascal’s Wager.  We really can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, therefore the possibility of a higher power existing is fifty-fifty. The odds are no different than that of a coin-flip. As we are presented with two potential outcomes. Because atheists are armed with the precepts of science the inability to falsify the existence of God already disqualifies the possibility of existence.  A corollary of this idea came from the infamous atheistic polemicist Christopher Hitchens in the form of Hitchens’s Razor. Succinctly put claims made without concrete evidence can be refuted without evidence. Technically, this argument could also be applied to atheism. The enigmatic nature of the God question is one that is cloaked in uncertainty. We have no means of proving or invalidating it. Either position is a leap-of-faith. Even the exalted dismissal of religion by science is still a leap-of-faith. With no means of testing the veracity, we will still run the risk of invaliding something true. As improbable as the premise may be.


Spreading the Word:
Atheists are just as incline as Jehovah’s witnesses to spread the good news. The attempts of atheist to proselytize their beliefs is somewhat underscored.  The author of this essay knows from anecdotal experience members of humanist groups will go to great lengths to persuade you to join their congregation.  It is not uncommon for nonbelievers to engage in heated debates over religious doctrines. In a futile attempt to persuade their religious opponent they are wrong. Making many atheists agents of transmission for their position on religion.  The vocal atheists who engage in this domestic missionary work have a clear agenda of making the world less religious. Pointing out the faults in reasoning synonymous with religion and atrocities committed in the name of God. Analogous to those spreading religious doctrines highlighting how the absence of religion leads to moral decay and sin.


Just about every religious tradition has it’s philosophical defenders and intellectual apologists, the same is very much true in atheism. The number of books, pamphlets, websites, blogs, and podcasts designed to persuasively defend atheism is dizzying. These substantial efforts have been particularly evident among the New Atheist intellectuals. Minds ranging from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris and even the previously mentioned late Christopher Hitchens provide the fodder for the growth of this movement. Their polemical treatises against religion are widely read. Mirror the popularity and purpose of many books designed to promote religiosity. Both Joel Osteen and Sam Harris are best-selling authors in the United States. Proving that those in the ranks of defending atheism are starting to exhibit similar notoriety as those who defend the faith.




This essay is not intended to be a personal attack against atheists or a moral judgment of atheism. It is merely expressing curious commonalities between atheism and organized religion. Intriguingly, atheism’s uncompromising nature does lend itself to having some peculiar similarities to strict forms of religious practice.  A conservative Christian is as equally invested in the promotion of their beliefs as of any atheist. Psychology and sociology most likely have some answers to why this is true. It is important to remember the Horseshoe Theory of Politics.  This theory asserts that the political extremes have more common characteristics than they do with the centrists. Leading one to speculate that this theory could be extrapolated and applied to other belief systems. Ranging from religion to positions on ethics issues.