Education Law

When Can a School Strip Search or Pat Down Students?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Public school officials might violate students’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights by forcing them to strip down during a search or by patting down everyone coming to a school event.

Schools have a lot of leeway in their efforts to keep drugs and weapons off school grounds. After all, they have a special duty to protect children in their care. So when school officials search students, the legal standards are lower than when police search adult suspects. Still, schools sometimes go too far. Courts especially take a hard look at two kinds of searches on campus: strip searches and intrusive, random pat downs.

The Ground Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court has established some basic guidelines for school searches. Public school officials generally can’t search students or their belongings unless they 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. Otherwise, the school runs the risk of violating the students’ rights under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But even if school officials had a good reason at the outset, the search shouldn’t be too intrusive, considering the child’s age and gender, as well as the nature of the suspected rule-breaking. (New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1984).)

How Far Is Too Far?

Clearly, you can’t get much more intrusive than forcing adolescents to strip or pull down their underwear, especially in front of their classmates. That’s why schools usually can conduct strip searches only when they have specific information that the students are hiding drugs, weapons, or other contraband under their clothes. Two cases provide examples of situations where strip searches may be unconstitutional:

  • In a case where a 13-year-old girl was suspected of giving her classmates prescription-strength and over-the-counter pain relievers, school officials didn’t find anything after searching her backpack. The assistant principal and nurse then told her to take off her clothes and pull away her underwear so that they could inspect it. After her mother sued the school, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the strip search violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment rights. As the justices explained, before school officials take the “quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts,” they must have a reasonable suspicion that students are hiding evidence in their underwear or that there’s a danger to other students. (Safford Unified School Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009).)
  • After some seventh grade boys accused each other of having marijuana, two vice principals brought them all to the office and searched them in the presence of a school resource officer. They found marijuana in one boy’s sock and in the waistband of another boy’s underpants. When the principals didn’t find anything in a third boy’s outer clothing, they told him to pull down his boxer shorts, leaving him naked in front of his classmates. A federal appellate court held that the strip search was excessive, and that there was no good reason to do it in front of the other boys. (D.H. v. Clayton County School District, 830 F.3d 1306 (11th Cir. 2016).)

What Are the Limits When There’s No Suspicion?

Most people would agree that a pat-down search isn’t as intrusive as a strip search. As long as school officials have good reason to suspect students of wrongdoing, they probably can get away with patting the kids down to look for evidence. But what if security officers search all students entering campus or school events, without any particular suspicion?

Courts have generally approved of metal detectors at school gates to prevent weapons on campus, but random or blanket searches and pat downs can be more problematic. For example:

  • A New Mexico high school student sued her school, claiming that a security officer had violated her rights by cupping her breasts and touching her legs during a routine search of all students coming to a prom. A federal judge ruled that her lawsuit could go ahead, because it was likely that the pat-down searches were too intrusive and violated the students Fourth Amendment rights. Herrera v. Santa Fe Public Schools, 792 F.Supp.2d 1174 (D. N.M. 2011).
  • A federal court in Minnesota held that daily searches of all special education students were too intrusive and violated the students’ Fourth Amendment rights. The searches sometimes included pat downs and always required the children to remove items of clothing. Hough v. Shakopee Public Schools, 608 F.Supp.2d 1087 (D. Minn. 2009).

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • Did the school violate my child’s Fourth Amendment rights by conducting pat-down searches of all students based on rumors that someone had a loaded gun on campus?
  • Was it an unconstitutional search when the school had a trained dog sniff my child as part of a random hunt for drugs?
  • If school officials suspected that my teenage daughter was hiding drugs, were they allowed to have a female school nurse conduct a strip search in private?
Go to the main FAQ page on students’ Fourth Amendment rights.

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