Education Law

When Can Schools Search Students and Their Belongings?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Schools have more leeway than police when searching students’ pockets, backpacks, and other belongings, but there are limits.

Kids might be forgiven for feeling like they don’t have any rights at school. In the name of safety, some school officials might pat down everyone going to a school dance, confiscate students’ smartphones and go through their texts or pictures, search everyone’s lockers, and conduct random drug tests. But students don’t completely give up their constitutional rights as soon as they enter the classroom. Courts have held that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches apply in the context of public schools. Still, students’ privacy rights are more limited than if they were adults dealing with law enforcement.

Looser Search-and-Seizure Standards for Schools

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives people the right against unreasonable search and seizure. This means that law enforcement officers aren’t supposed to invade your privacy by searching you, your property, or your belongings unless they have a warrant or probable cause to believe that you’ve committed a crime or that they’ll find criminal evidence. Fourth Amendment protections kick in when people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the place where they are at the time of the search, or in the thing being searched.

Historically, many courts believed that schools had pretty much the same rights as parents to search students and their belongings. But in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment applies to searches conducted by public school officials, and that students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the personal belongings that they bring to school. However, because schools have a special need to maintain a safe learning environment, the Court didn’t believe they should have to get a warrant or meet the probable-cause standard before searching students. Instead, a search will generally be OK if:

  • the school had a “reasonable suspicion” that the search would turn up evidence that the student broke the law or school rules, and
  • the extent of the search was related to its purpose and wasn’t “excessively intrusive,” considering the child’s age and gender, as well as the nature of the wrongdoing.

(New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1984).)

Every Rule Has Its Exceptions

Some courts have found that schools don’t need to meet the reasonable-suspicion standard before searching students in certain circumstances, such as

  • when an anonymous tip or general information is related to a particularly dangerous situation, such as when a student may have a loaded gun (see, for example, K.P. v. State, 129 So.3d 1121 (Fla. D.C. App. 2013)), or
  • drug tests of some student groups.

Also, school officials can detain students for questioning based on any kind of general suspicion (as long as the detention isn’t arbitrary or a form of harassment). Then the school can search the students or their belongings based on their response or demeanor during the questioning.

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • If school officials searched my child illegally, can I sue them? When are schools or individual officials immune from lawsuits?
  • Do the same standards apply if my child was searched by a police officer or security guard working at the school?
  • Are there any limits in my state on a private school’s search of my child?
  • Does my state have stricter requirements for school searches than the federal guidelines?
  • Can school officials use evidence from an illegal search of my child in disciplinary proceedings if they don’t turn the evidence over to law enforcement?

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

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