Searching school lockers was originally protected under the Fourth Amendment which protects a person’s space from being searched without a good reason. However, a 1980 Supreme Court case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. (defendant's name is protected in public records as a minor,) set the precedent for an exception. T.L.O. was found to be smoking marijuana with another student. T.L.O. initially denied the accusation but was subsequently searched and found to possess illegal substances and cigarettes. The Supreme Court ruled that locker searches legal not necessarily under strict warrant, but just under “reasonable suspicion.” This ultimately relaxed the requirement of the Fourth Amendment and is the basis for locker searches today.
Background: Legal Right
There are several regulations regarding locker searches that a school must follow. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a locker may be searched if there is evidence that a school rule is being violated or that evidence is contained inside a student's locker. Teachers can only act on trustworthy sources such as a trusted student's testimony, the same testimony from several students, a teacher or school official' suspicion or any combination of the aforementioned. When these requirements are fulfilled, a teacher can search a locker without any prior notice and typically in the presence of the student and another staff member.
A direct reason from the court case for locker searches is that more students like T.L.O. may be using lockers as storage for illegal substances.This case is used by some parents in arguing that the reward for stopping distribution of these substances far outweighs the risks of invading privacy. According to a 2004 study done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University on teen substance abuse, parents generally approve locker searches for this reason. Seventy-two percent of surveyed parents favor locker searches for potential drugs, 51 percent of which strongly support it.
Bullying or violent activity in high school is typically covered up by either the bully or his victims. As such, lockers can be a prime place of evidence against a potential bullying student in school. Lockers can contain objects such as forcefully stolen money or violent student threat letters that can be used as evidence against a bullying student. In a survey done by the National Institute of Justice, 55 percent of schools reported that they have used locker searches in order to prevent violence in their schools.
To prevent teen weapon violence, schools have used this as a prime reason in executing random locker searches throughout the day. In a 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the National Center of Education Statistics, 6 percent of students brought weapons inside school property for one to six days in a 30-day period. Some of these students even resorted to bringing their own weapons out of fear; in a 1998 National Survey on High School Youths, Weapons and Violence by the National Institute of Justice, 43 percent of students stated that they carried their guns to protect themselves.
- National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VIII: Teens and Parents; Columbia University National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse
- National Institute of Justice; High School Youths, Weapons, and Violence: A National Survey
- Yukon Education Branch; School Locker Use and Locker Searches
- key image by Orlando Florin Rosu from Fotolia.com