Search and Seizure Issues
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. These protections impact the public schools in the area of search of students by school officials for contraband such as illegal drugs or weapons. The courts have provided direction to school officials on the issue of student searches in two areas: 1) what is necessary to justify a student search and 2) what should be the scope of that search. The following material and cases address search and seizure issues in the school environment.
- Search of a Student's Purse
- Strip Searches
- Drug Testing Students
- Drug Testing Teachers
- Exclusionary Rule Doesn't Apply to Disciplinary Proceeding
- What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools
- New Jersey v. T.L.O. 469 U.S. 325 (1985)
A 14-year-old student was discovered smoking in violation of school rules. When the student denied smoking, the school principal demanded to search her purse. After finding a pack of cigarettes, the principal found rolling papers and other items associated with drug use, along with a large amount of cash and notes implicating the student as dealing in drugs. At issue is whether the search by the principal violated the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment based upon a finding the 1) that a search of a student at its inception requires reasonable ground for suspecting the search will turn up evidence that the student is violating the law or school rules, and 2) that the scope of the search must be reasonable based upon the facts surrounding the search.
In 2004, the Missouri General Assembly adopted guidance for school officials on the use of strip searches in a school setting. Section 167.166 RSMo. bars strip searches in all but a few extreme circumstances. Sanctions are imposed for school employees found in violation of this statute.
- Willis v. Anderson Community School Corp., 158 F.3d 415 (7th Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 1999
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a school’s policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by requiring a student suspended from school for a disciplinary reason unrelated to illegal drug use to submit to a suspicionless drug test before reentering school. The court determined that the school did not successfully demonstrate a strong enough relationship between the reason for the disciplinary action (fighting) and illegal drug use "to support a conclusive presumption of reasonable suspicion" that warranted testing. The court argued that the district’s "special needs", i.e., protecting the health and safety of its students were not strong enough to overcome the student’s individual interest in privacy. Unlike students who voluntarily participate in extracurricular activities, a student unable to attend school because he or she is suspended for a disciplinary matter has a greater expectation of privacy. Without individualized reasonable suspicion, a general policy requiring the drug testing of any student returning to school from a suspension unrelated to illegal drug use fails.
- Thompson v. Carthage School District 87 F. ed 979 (8th Cir. 1996) (Carthage, Arkansas)
A student was expelled from Carthage High School after crack cocaine was found in his coat pocket while school officials searched for weapons reported to be on school grounds. An action was filed upon behalf of the student alleging violation of the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Federal District Court found in favor of the student and awarded damages. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court ruling finding that the exclusionary rule should not apply to student disciplinary proceedings and that evidence obtained in an illegal search may be used in school disciplinary hearings.
- Knox County Educ. Ass’n v. Knox County Bd. of Educ., 158 F.3d 361 (6th Cir. 1998)
In a case of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a school district’s drug testing procedures that required suspicionless drug/alcohol testing for all persons applying for or transferring to "safety sensitive" positions including teaching positions. The court also upheld the part related to suspicion-based testing of district employees. In regard to suspicionless testing, the court agreed that teaching positions qualified under the definition of "safety sensitive" as defined in district policy. Employing the reasonableness standard, the court balanced the interests of the district against those of the employees’. In doing so, it determined that the district’s interests in maintaining a positive and safe learning environment outweighed the employees’ interest in privacy. The court contended that teachers play a unique role in society. Teachers "stand in the place of students’ natural parents and are responsible for their safekeeping." They also have the responsibility of remaining "drug-free so that they can satisfy their statutory obligation to insure the safety and welfare of [their students]." As to the drug testing procedure, the court determined it was both minimally intrusive and narrow enough to be reasonable. Finding the alcohol testing procedure more problematic, the court remanded that portion of the case back to the district court for a determination as to its constitutionality.
On October 4, 1999, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal brought by the Knox County Education Association challenging the Knox County Board of Education's policy requiring the drug-testing of teacher and other so-called "safety-sensitive" employee applicants. For now, the Court's denial allows the Sixth Circuit's decision to stand. Though the Court's refusal to hear the appeal may spark a re-examination of drug testing by school districts nationwide, it would not determine how a similar case from the Eighth Circuit would be decided. Missouri public school districts interested in implementing or modifying drug testing policies must continue to do so with appropriate attention to the legal issues involved.