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Do Schools Have the Right to Search Students' Personal Belongings?

by Marie Anderson

According to the U.S. Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, students do not "shed their constitutional rights" when they are in school. However, the rights of students must be balanced with the need to maintain a safe and effective educational environment. A student's right to free speech, press, privacy and searches have been limited in schools by several Supreme Court Cases. Generally speaking, students' belongings can be searched without a warrant if school administrators have reasonable suspicion.

Searching Students

In the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court ruled that students have a limited right to privacy while attending school. The student involved in the case was accused of smoking in the bathroom. When the student denied the accusations, a search of her personal belongings by the principal turned up cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia. The Supreme Court ruled that this search did not violate her rights because students "have reduced expectations of privacy in school."

Reasonable Suspicion

The T.L.O. case made it legal for school officials to search a student's property or belongings, such as backpacks, lockers or cars, as long as there is "reasonable suspicion" that a student broke a school rule or committed a crime. For example, if a teacher overhears students discussing that they have a knife at school, school officials would be able to legally search the students' belongings because the comment overheard by the teacher gives them "reasonable suspicion."

Search Scenarios

There are some situations where it would not be legal or reasonable to search through a student's belongings. For example, if a student reported that her cell phone was stolen out of her purse during lunch, it may not be reasonable to search every single student in the school. However, if students report that they witnessed a certain individual showing off the phone later in the day, school officials would then have '"reasonable suspicion" to search that student and their belongings. When safety is a concern, like a possible weapon on campus, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts claims that courts usually uphold such searches as reasonable.

Metal Detectors

Some schools have installed metal detectors in an attempt to reduce school violence. According to the ACLU, courts in Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee have upheld the legality of the use of these devices in schools. The courts claim that metal detectors are not an unreasonable search and using them in schools is just as valid as using them in airports. If a student sets off the metal detector, it provides "reasonable suspicion" to further search the student's belongings.

About the Author

Houston area native Marie Anderson began writing education articles in 2013. She holds a Bachelor of Science in exercise and sports science and a Master of Science in education administration. She has seven years of teaching and coaching experience within the Texas public school system.

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