Education Law

Can Schools Search Students’ Lockers Without Suspecting Them of Wrongdoing?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Public school students may or may not have privacy rights to the contents of their lockers, depending on where they live.

Public school students have privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. That means that a school generally can’t search students or their belongings unless it has a “reasonable suspicion” that the student broke the law or school rules, and that the search will turn up evidence of the wrongdoing. But what if their belongings are in a locker at school? After all, the lockers are school property. Does that mean school officials can search lockers (and their contents) anytime they want? The answer may depend on where the school is and whether itl has a written policy about locker searches.

Private or Not?

Search-and-seizure protections kick in when people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the thing being searched. For instance, most people expect that anything inside their pockets, backpack or smart phone is private. When the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment applied in the context of public schools, the justices specifically avoided answering the question of whether students had a legitimate privacy expectation in lockers or other school property (New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1984)). State courts have taken up that question, but they haven’t all agreed on the answer.

A Difference of Opinion

Courts in some states have found that students have no right to expect that their school locker is private, especially if a school policy or a state law makes it clear that lockers are subject to searches. For example:

  • In a case where school officials found a gun in a student’s coat pocket as part of a random locker search, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the school hadn’t violated his Fourth Amendment rights. As the court reasoned, the student had no reasonable privacy expectation in the contents of his locker, because the school district had a written policy (in a handbook given to all students) that lockers were school property and could be searched at any time. (In Interest of Isiah B., 500 N.W.2d 637 (Wisc. Sup. Ct., 1993).)
  • A Maryland appellate Court held that students had no privacy expectation in their lockers because of a state law that gave schools the authority to search lockers, even though the local school policy said that officials would do that only if they had “probable cause” to believe the students had drugs, weapons, or other criminal contraband. (In re Patrick Y., 746 A.2d 405 (Md. Ct. App. 2000).)

In contrast, other state courts have concluded that students do have a legitimate privacy expectation in the contents of their lockers, regardless of what a school or state regulation says. For example:

  • An appeals court in Ohio held that a state law violated the Fourth Amendment because it allowed public school officials to search student lockers at any time, even if they didn’t suspect that the lockers contained evidence of wrongdoing. The court said that states aren’t allowed to declare that students have no privacy rights to their personal belongings, contrary to guarantees in the U.S. Constitution. (In re Adam, 697 N.E.2d 1100 (Ohio Ct. App. 1997).)
  • The Iowa Supreme Court found that students had “some measure of privacy” interest in the contents of their lockers, even though a state law said otherwise. But the court also concluded that the privacy interest should be balanced with the school’s responsibility to ensure a proper educational environment. So the search in this case was reasonable because it was part of the school’s annual, pre-announced locker cleanup intended to promote health and safety. (State v. Jones, 666 N.W.2d 142 (Iowa Sup. Ct. 2003).)

Talking With a Lawyer

If school officials have found something incriminating after searching your child’s locker, consider consulting with an attorney. When the school has turned over evidence to the police or juvenile authorities, a criminal defense lawyer should be able to help determine whether the search was legal under the U.S. Constitution as well as the law in your state. If it wasn’t, an attorney experienced in this area of the law can try to get the evidence excluded. And if the school is moving to suspend your child or pass down some other punishment, an education lawyer can explain students’ rights in disciplinary proceedings.

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

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