The debate over the school locker searches reignites after every incident of in-school violence, and for the most part the arguments haven't changed much: Proponents say searches promote safety, while opponents claim searches are a violation of student privacy. However, some new studies have emerged that show how security measures like locker searches may have deleterious side effects to the goals of education and school communities.
Perhaps the strongest argument in support of school locker searches is that they make schools safer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.1 percent of a sample of high school students reported carrying a firearm to school within the 30 days before the survey was taken. When that firearm is a handgun, it can easily be stored in a locker. If students are aware of a locker search policy, they will be less inclined to bring contraband items, such as guns, to school.
Schools own their lockers and therefore have the right to that property; additionally, in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools can search lockers with probable cause. However, students lose privacy by having to submit to locker searches. Regardless of ownership, lockers are the only spaces in schools that students can consider their own. During the school day, they have to maintain an appearance that they present to the outside world, and their lockers often represent a place more personal and devoid of pretense.
Allowing locker searches brings up the question of privacy and what constitutes reasonable cause. Has the student made a threat? Have they told another student that they have an illegal item in their possession? While those situations would give administration cause, unlawful searches are an unfortunate inevitability as long as the rules regarding searches are open for debate. Some schools take measures to protect themselves against accusations of illegal searches, such as the Woodlawn School District in Arkansas, which states quite clearly that they own all lockers in the school district and can search them whenever they choose. Nonetheless, every year more searches are argued, adding fuel to the debate.
It is without question that security measures, such as lawful locker searches, can help keep schools safe. However, according to Jason P. Nance in the Stanford Law Review, the reliance upon increased security measures to keep schools safe can send the wrong message; it can imply that students are untrustworthy. Furthermore, such measures can undermine a school's attempt to build school community trust and respect, which organically cultivates a safe environment. Nance also cites research by Matthew Mayer and Peter Leone that claims this misplaced focus might actually lead to prison mentalities and result more in-school violence and crime.
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