Safety has become a national concern, especially in our children’s schools. Between gun violence and drug sales, administrators may sacrifice the rights of one to protect the many. Even considering this, however, governing laws still protect the civil liberties of individual students. Though they don’t have the same degree of freedom protections as adults, they do have rights.
As a parent, you are often the strongest advocate for your child. Here is what you should understand about student searches in schools.
LEGAL SEARCH AND SEIZURES
Before 1985, the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment – the one protecting citizens from unlawful search and seizure – applied to students in the public school system. During that time, it was illegal to for a school administrator to search a student’s locker or belongings. However, a Supreme Court decision in 1985, New Jersey v. T.L.O., changed that interpretation. An administrator does not need probable cause to search a student’s locker or belongings. Schools only need a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to perform a search.
If a search isn’t on school property, the burden for a search is higher. Police or other law enforcement officials need something closer to probable cause. The circumstances change, however, when both the school officials and the law enforcement agents act together as a unit in support of the suspicion to conduct a search.
Even still, in some schools, the policy is that students must provide consent before a search. What happens if your child refuses to consent and administrators still search his or her property? It often depends on what the administrators find. While it can affect a student’s academic life, the authorities cannot use it in court. The school may use it for school disciplinary action against the student.
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS
Many schools now employ School Resource Officers (SROs) to handle situations at schools involving breaking rules, drugs, or illegal weapons. SROs can testify against a student in juvenile court. However, it is important to know that students do have certain rights of protection in the case of an unreasonable search and seizure in school, on school property, and at a school event. The laws for SROs do vary from state to state.
When it comes to school property, such as desks, lockers or computers, there are no privacy protections. In other words, school officials can perform a search of those areas even without a students’ permission. If you have any questions regarding your child’s school policy, you have the right to request a copy of the policy for your review.
STUDENTS’ RIGHTS DURING QUESTIONING
School staff has the right to question your students. In Pennsylvania, the school does not have to call in the parents to do so. The police have to follow certain rules for questioning students, just as they do in the case of search and seizures. Minors being questioned by police must hear their Miranda rights and know they have the right to refuse questioning.
INVESTING IN A SAFE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Today, teachers and students want a safe and secure learning environment. If police or administrators have violated your child’s rights, talk with an Pennsylvania attorney.