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:
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.