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Can public school officials search a student’s bag while in school?

The Sanders Firm

Yes, in the interest of ensuring a safe and secure academic environment, public school officials can conduct searches but only within certain legal limits.

With human tragedy impacting public and private schools on a daily basis, there is a strong need for school administrators to implement and enforce numerous policies to maintain order thereby ensuring a safe learning environment.

However, the implementation and enforcement of school policies are not without controversy. For example, in New Jersey v TLO, two female public school freshmen were caught smoking cigarettes in the school lavatory, and were subjected to questioning by the assistant vice principal. While the first girl admitted to the act that violated school rules, the other one student “TLO” vehemently denied the accusation. (The full name of TLO was withheld by the courts due to her status as a minor.)

School officials having reasonable suspicion that TLO was in possession of cigarettes, the assistant vice principal demanded to inspect TLO’s purse. There, he found a pack of cigarettes and, in the course of the search he also found marijuana and drug paraphernalia, a list of students who owed TLO money, and a couple of letters implicating the student’s involvement in dealing marijuana.

As a result, the State of New Jersey filed delinquency charges against TLO in a juvenile court. TLO claimed that her school had infringed upon her Fourth Amendment rights and asked that the court to suppress the drug evidence seized. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided that the search was reasonable and permissible under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

When is a search legal?
School officials have a legal obligation to enforce school policies and laws that will maintain order and ensure a safe learning environment. They are also responsible for enforcing school policies and laws off-campus as well, particularly during school-sponsored or related activities such as field trips, conventions, competitions, etc.

It is legal to conduct individual general or random searches as long as these are justified with reasonable suspicion. Situations differ but can include verifiable reports or anonymous messages that “tip” the school officials of students’ involvement in crime or possible violation of school rules.

The TLO standard has been applied to uphold a broad range of content searches. The contents of lockers(State v. Jones, 666 N.W.2d 142 (Iowa 2003), purses (New Jersey v. TLO, (469 U.S. 325 (1985), backpacks (DesRoches v. Caprio, 156 F.3d 571 (4th Cir. 1998), vehicles(Enterprise City Bd. of Educ. v. C.P. by & Through J.P., 698 So. 2d 131 (Ala. Civ. App. 1996), clothing(Thompson v. Carthage Sch. Dist., 87 F.3d 979 (8th Cir. 1996) and In re William V.; 111 Cal. App. 4th 1464 (2003), have all been upheld when the educator has a reasonable suspicion for suspecting that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. The TLO standard has also been applied to the seizure and search of cellular telephone and other electronic devices. Price v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 51 A.D.3d 277 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 2008).

The searches and seizures may involve items like firearms, prohibited drugs, hazardous substances, contraband goods, stolen property, among others. Or these could be pornographic material, gambling paraphernalia, and devices or documents intended for cheating during exams.
When is a search NOT legal?

School officials searching without reasonable suspicion is illegal. Additionally, searches based solely on a person’s color, race, religion, age, handicap, sex, gender orientation, or other reasons that is also illegal. A student’s appearance, origin, social profile, or belief alone does not constitute reasonable suspicion.

Certainly, performing a strip search of a student is illegal. For example, in Safford Unified School District v April Redding, the Supreme Court ruled that middle school officials went overboard when they acted on information that 13 year old student Savana Redding’s was selling prescription-strength ibuprofen pills on the school grounds. School officials ran afoul of the law when the assistant principal and the school nurse ordered the student to strip search exposing her breasts and pelvis area. There were no drugs found on Savana’s person, or even under her clothing.

If you believe that your civil rights have been violated, or if you know anyone who may have had their civil rights violated, please call The Sanders Firm, P.C. for a free consultation.

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