Searches and Seizures: Is There Such a Thing as Privacy in School?


Ideally schools in the United States are considered by both parents and students alike to be “safe-havens” where parents can trust their children to learn and remain safe during the day and where students can feel unthreatened in a well-maintained learning environment. However within this fully regulated government service, there are often debates over proper classroom environments, teaching tactics, and privacy issues. Today the main privacy issue in public schools is where to draw the line between keeping the school safe and maintaining the privacy of the students (Boomer par. 19).

Searches and seizures in schools are not recent issues; however they are becoming more public now than in recent years. The Bill of Rights covers searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment which states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized” (Bill of Rights par. 9). Under the Bill of Rights, citizens are guaranteed a right to privacy and are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures that are conducted without “probable cause,” evidence sufficient to warrant an arrest or search and seizure.

However, because the Bill of Rights may be vague in its’ description of what constitutes “probable cause,” many cases have been brought before the Supreme Court to debate whether there was sufficient evidence for a search or seizure to take place, and some of these cases have dealt with searches and seizures in schools. One major Supreme Court case took place in 1984 and focused on the issue of searches in schools. The case, New Jersey vs. TLO, began after a teacher found students smoking in a school bathroom. After denying the charge, a school administrator demanded to see a students’ purse in which he found cigarettes and marijuana (Search and Seizure 596). After traveling through each of the courts under the U.S. Supreme Court and finding two cases in favor of the search and one against, the case finally went to the United States Supreme Court where the case was debated. The court found that the Fourth Amendment does apply to school searches in which school officials act as state agents enforcing school policies and state statues (Raskin 127). Lamorte explains how schools are trying to establish the “proper balance between an individual student’s right to Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and the duty of the school officials to provide all students with a safe and secure school environment” (Lamorte 136).

With this balance in mind, the Supreme Court also found that search warrants do not need to be obtained by school officials prior to a student search. This may make it easier and faster for schools to secure a safe environment. They also found that administrators do not need “probable cause” in regards to law violations. Instead “reasonableness” is required (Bosher 8). Reasonableness is defined by the court as “justification at the inception of the search and reasonable relatedness to the issue for which the search was implemented” (Czubaj 549). This means that instead of administrators needing enough evidence to have the student arrested, they need to only find a “justification” for the search and provide an explanation as to why the search was related to the issue at hand. Because of these findings, the search of the students’ purse was found reasonable and the school was found justified in their search (Czubaj 549). Because of this influential Supreme Court case, the process schools must take in order to search and seize the belongings of a student has been defined differently than the state process. Now, instead of needing “probable cause” to search a student’s possession, administrators only need “reasonableness.” Since 1985, schools may have had an easier time implementing searches within the school, and an easier time proving the search reasonable and justifiable.

There has been current controversy over whether or not schools have taken advantage of this ease of restrictions and become too greedy with the authority it allows them. But there is also controversy over whether or not students are educated on the rules and regulations of both the school and the law. With these issues in mind, schools should search property through reasonableness and provide a program designed to educate students on their rights, responsibilities, and which laws/rules apply to them as both students and citizens.

Searches within Reasonableness

Because lockers, desks, bathroom stalls, and other pieces of property in school buildings belong to the school and are school property, schools should have the right to search them within the courts definition of “reasonableness.” The courts define “reasonableness” as “justification at the inception of the search and reasonable relatedness to the issue for which the search was implemented” (Czubaj 549). Allowing school administrators to search their own schools’ property within “reasonableness,” may give them the efficiency and accessibility they need to search property in a timely fashion.

“Reasonableness” may also give administrators more accessibility than “probable cause,” and is likely more time efficient because it does not require a warrant for a search to occur. Kenneth Lane emphasizes that a “generalized hunch may be insufficient evidence of reasonable suspicion” (Lane 39). By requiring “reasonableness” school officials are unable to search school property for no reason. This protects a student’s privacy rights and might reassure students that their property is safe from unreasonable searches brought about for no reason. By continuing to allow searches within “reasonableness” parents and students can be reassured that school officials are keeping schools as safe as possible while continuing to protect students’ rights.

Further by allowing administrators the right to search through school property, “reasonableness” protects the students by preventing unnecessary and unprovoked searches. For example, an assistant principal stops three males and observes one of them place a calculator case behind his back. Once in his office, the assistant principal forcefully takes the case and finds marijuana inside. However, the Court found this search illegal because the assistant principal could produce no facts to support a reasonable suspicion that the student was involved in any illegal activity (Lincoln 8). Simply placing a calculator case behind the students’ back may not be enough evidence for the assistant principal to have “reasonableness” in his decision to search the case. Often times the general public may feel administrators take the power they have beyond what is reasonable, and punish students too frequently. By implementing searches within “reasonableness,” administrators possibly cannot overuse their powers, and can be kept in check by the courts.

Programs for Students

Providing programs in schools that educate students on both school rules and state laws may help students remain safe and free from trouble in school as well as provide them with tools that could help them become better citizens. Only twenty-five percent of students in the United States know the rights given to them under different Amendments to the Constitution (Price 11). By designing a statewide or nationwide program that teaches students about their rights stated in the Bill of Rights, students may become better educated members of society.

This program on the rights of students could encompass learning about the Bill of Rights as well as the rights all people have as humans. The program could also develop discussions about whether or not students feel certain mock situations are protecting human rights or whether or not certain laws are really protecting citizens properly. This could aid students in learning to voice their opinion as well as hearing other students’ opinions on controversial issues. The program could help students with their ability to decipher what actions are within the law and what actions against them are legitimate.

Without educating students on their rights as well as the rights of the school administrators, students will never understand why searches and seizures are being performed against them (Brown 138). But with the combination of both the restriction on administrators to show “reasonableness” in their searches and an educational program in place to educate students about their rights, a balance between power and knowledge on issues such as searches and seizures may be able to solve much of the controversy over reasonable searches within schools.


Each individual whether a student or an adult has a right to privacy whether in school or not. However when an individual’s privacy conflicts with the safety of children or adolescents in school, actions must be taken. However it is important to remember that action should only be taken when permissible and if it continues to protect an individual. By continuing to allow administrators to search only through “reasonableness,” students’ rights are protected to the fullest with safety in mind. Also, by providing a program to students educating them on their rights under the Bill of Rights, students can identify when their rights have been violated and what they have the freedom to do within the country. By educating students, students can protect their own rights as well as become educated individuals of society.

Works Cited
“Bill of Rights.” The National Archives Experience. 17 Oct. 2007 <>.
Boomer, Lyman. “Searching Students: An Ethical and Legal Issue for Special Educators.” Preventing School Failures. 36.3 (1992).
Bosher, William, Kate Kaminski, and Richard Vacca. The School Law Handbook: What Every Leader Needs to Know. Alexandria: ASCD. 2003.
Brown, Frank, et al. Key Legal Issues for Schools. Toronto: Association of School Business Officials International. 2006.
Czubaj, Camilia Anne. “A Legal Analysis of School Searches.” Education 115.4 (Summer 1995): 548-551.
LaMorte, Michael. School Law: Cases and Concepts. 4th ed. London: Allyn and Bacon, 1993.
Lane, Kenneth, Mary Jane Connelly, Julie Mead, Mark Gooden, and Suzanne Eckes, eds. The Principal’s Legal Handbook. 3rd ed. Dayton: Educational Law Association, 2005. 34-57.
Lincoln, Eugene. “Searches and Seizures in Public Schools: Going Beyond the Supreme Court’s Ruling in New Jersey v. T.L.O.” The Journal of Negro Education 57 (Winter 1988): 3-10.
Price, Janet, Alan Levine, and Eve Cary. The Rights of Students. Carbondale, Il.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
Raskin, Jamin. We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and about Students. 2nd ed. Washington D.C.: CQ Press. 2003.
“Search and Seizure. Suspicionless Drug Testing. Seventh Circuit Upholds Drug Testing of Student Athletes in Public Schools. Schaill v. Tippecanoe County School Corp., 864 F.2d 1309 (7th Cir. 1988).” Harvard Law Review. 103 (Dec. 1989): 591-597.

Author: Lauren Ridenour

Student - Integrated Social Studies Edu

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