Search And Seizure: The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to
be free from unreasonable searches. The Fourth amendment also applies to student searches
because school officials act as representatives of the government and not as parental
surrogates. A search is justified if reasonable grounds exist to think that the search will reveal
evidence that school rules were violated. The scope of a search must be limited according to a
student's age, gender, and the type of offense. School officials may search a student based on
reasonable suspicion and not probable cause. A student's right to privacy is balanced against
the school's responsibility to provide a safe learning environment. But what constitutes
reasonable suspicion? Here are some general examples:
The odor of cigarette smoke does not provide reasonable suspicion to search all students in a
school bathroom. However, if one student is caught smoking, his backpack and pockets may
A report by a student that another student has a weapon at school provides reasonable
suspicion to search that student and his locker.
A group of students exchanging money, without more, does not provide reasonable suspicion
(of a drug transaction). However, even an anonymous report that a student will be bringing
alcohol or drugs to school provides reasonable suspicion to search (purse, pockets, locker).
Note: The presence of law enforcement officers at a school while a search is conducted does
NOT require a showing of probable cause (v. reasonable suspicion). However, if the law
enforcement officer conducts the search, probable cause may be required. The same holds
true for school officials acting as agents of the police. For example, the police may ask a school
administrator to do a search for them, since a warrant will not be required.
Consent: Voluntary consent by a student allows a search even when reasonable suspicion or
probable cause are lacking. The search can only extend as far as the student specified. For
example, permission to search a locker does not extend to a purse carried by the student, or her
pockets. Consent must be given freely without coercion, and the police may not ask a school
official to influence a student to consent to a search.
Note: While an unconstitutional search of a student may reveal evidence of wrongdoing, it may
still be used as evidence at a school disciplinary hearing, but not in a criminal trial. An unlawful
search may lead to a law suit, however, if it was wrongfully conducted. A student may sue
under Civil Rights Section 1983, 42 U.S.C.A. for damages. This Act applies to school officials
who knowingly, willingly, or maliciously act to deprive a student of constitutional rights.
Schools have a legal responsibility to protect students from haring themselves or others. A