Education Law

What Is “Reasonable Suspicion” for Searching Students at School?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
If a teacher or principal searches your backpack or cellphone without a good reason, the search could be a violation of your privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Before school officials can search students or their belongings, they must have a “reasonable suspicion” that the students have broken the law or school rules, and that the search will turn up evidence of that wrongdoing. But what exactly is reasonable?

The Circumstances Matter

When the U.S. Supreme Court set out the standard for school searches, it didn’t give a blanket definition of “reasonable suspicion.” What’s reasonable depends on all of the circumstances behind any search, but the suspicion should be based on more than a hunch or a rumor. Also, the school must generally suspect an individual or group of students rather than the entire student body. That’s why courts have ruled that random searches of all students’ belongings are unconstitutional. (See, for example, Doe v. Little Rock School Dist., 380 F.3d 349 (8 Cir 2004).)

Tipsters and Telltale Signs

Anonymous tips usually aren’t good enough to justify a search, unless school officials have other information (including something in the student’s disciplinary history) that would back up what they learned from the tip. But some courts have allowed searches based on information or sources that certain people might consider dubious, such as:

  • tips from student-informants who previously gave teachers incorrect information about other students’ supposed misconduct (see, for example, D.G. v. State, 961 So.2d 1063 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007))
  • reports of wrongdoing that don’t clearly identify the suspected student, such as suggestions that a long-haired student was smoking marijuana on a school bus (see Gallimore v. Henrico County School Bd., 38 F.Supp.3d 721 (E.D. Va. 2014))
  • students’ odd or suspicious behavior
  • bulges in backpacks or clothing, or
  • the smell of cigarette smoke or marijuana in the student’s vicinity.

Also, school officials can take students in for questioning based on a general suspicion—and then search the kids based on their response or demeanor during the questioning.

Go to the main FAQ page on students’ Fourth Amendment rights.

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