As national concerns about drugs, guns and violence rise, so has debate about school safety. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey vs. T.L.O. that the Fourth Amendment, which offers protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, applies to students on school property. While some believe this law requires officials to respect students' rights to privacy while still investigating suspicious behavior, others think searches may adversely affect student safety and attitudes.
More to Possession than Meets the Eye
One common argument against personal property searches in schools is that the results of a search may not tell the whole story. According to "Search and Seizure in the Schools," a booklet published by the Indiana Humanities Council, searching desks, lockers and backpacks may offer many possibilities for students to be unfairly accused. For example, a student could put drugs in another student's backpack or gain access to his locker, leading him to be unlawfully accused of drug possession. Because of these scenarios, many opponents of school searches believe students should have sole access to their own property, even school-owned lockers and desks.
Searches Create Greater Disorder
Some also argue that search policies actually make schools less safe. A 1999 study by Matthew J. Mayer and Peter E. Leone at the University of Maryland revealed that adding more property search policies can result in greater student infractions. Searches of belongings create a prison-like atmosphere, where students don't feel trusted or respected, resulting in the very rebellion the policies were intended to avoid. Kenneth J. King of the Suffolk Law School Juvenile Justice Center also argues that searches prevent free communication and relationships with teachers, adding further toxicity to the school environment.
Advocates of student searches argue that the terminology of the Fourth Amendment is key to making policies. According to University of North Carolina Institute of Government faculty member Laurie L. Mesibov, the Fourth Amendment protects against "unreasonable searches," meaning that school officials may not search a student's property without reasonable suspicion that an infraction has occurred. Because of this, students retain a reasonable expectation of privacy. Recent Supreme Court decisions -- such as 2009's Safford vs. Redding, which ruled a school official's strip-search of a female student unconstitutional -- have further defined a student's rights in regard to property searches, protecting their reasonable right to privacy.
In Place of Parents
Although New Jersey vs. T.L.O. largely undermined its role in the student search issue, many student search advocates use the doctrine of "in loco parentis" -- meaning "in place of the parent" -- to argue their position. This doctrine states that while on school property, administrators and faculty act in the role of parents and are therefore permitted access to student property for discipline purposes. Although the doctrine has been deemed old-fashioned by many, law scholar Alysa B. Koloms claims that many people, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, still consider it a viable argument.
- Popular Government: Privacy and Public School Students
- Education and Treatment of Children: A Structural Analysis of School Violence and Disruption: Implications for Creating Safer Schools
- University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law: Exploring Constitutional Conflicts
- Hofstra Law Review: Stripping Down the Reasonableness Standard: The Problems With Using In Loco Parentis To Define Students' Fourth Amendment Rights
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