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In the United States, searches of student property by teachers without a warrant are a common practice. If any evidence is uncovered, it may then be used in a court of law for charges such as delinquency. Furthermore, with the advent of technology, some teachers have started taking phones from students who break the rules related to them and accessing the information on them for purposes such as discovering other rule-breakers. However, it may be argued that such practices violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Phones, in particular, are a grey area because there is no legislation that governs such interactions. This paper argues that teachers should not be permitted to conduct searches of student property without a warrant, similarly to the police.
New Jersey v. T.L.O.
The original case that set a precedent for the current search policy is New Jersey v. T.L.O., which lasted from 1984 to 1985. According to “New Jersey v. T.L.O.,” a teacher caught two students smoking in the bathroom, which they denied to the principal, and a search revealed one of the children to be a marihuana dealer. Courts up to and including the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court held that there was no Fourth Amendment violation because the search was reasonable.
However, “New Jersey v. T.L.O.” notes that the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the search was unreasonable, and ultimately the delinquency charge was remanded. The U.S. Supreme Court then reversed the ruling again and declared that the actions of the Assistant Vice Principal were reasonable. In the end, the case serves as a precedent that permits teachers to search student property without a warrant.
The necessity of the search was a strong argument against the assertion of its reasonability. The teacher’s testimony should have been sufficient for the Assistant Vice Principal to deliver punishment to the students, as the official did not suspect the presence of drugs in the girl’s purse. The evidence of cigarettes would be additional and strengthen the school’s case, but ultimately, it would be unnecessary. Furthermore, the school could have confiscated the purse or let the student keep it under the supervision and obtain a warrant for the search. The immediate investigation of the contents was not necessary and may be considered unreasonable. As such, it would violate the student’s privacy and the Fourth Amendment, a practice that is dangerous and should not be permitted.
The power of school officials to conduct searches has expanded since 1985 due to a variety of developments. According to Ellenberger, the primary reason is the school tragedies that occurred in towns such as Springfield, but search law is non-specific and dependent on the location. Ultimately, unlike police officers, who require reasonable suspicion and a warrant to conduct a search, school teachers are public officials and only need the former.
However, the boundaries of reasonable suspicion are undefined, and Ehlenberger describes numerous cases where searches overstepped bounds, even if others were justified. Practices such as the use of drug-sniffing dogs, in particular, have been controversial, and some schools have been employing random searches when they had issues such as drug epidemics.
People have called out these practices as problematic and harmful rather than helpful in combating issues among the student body. Flannery claims that random searches discriminate against students who belong to minorities and contribute to sending them from school to prison through overly harsh policies. Furthermore, with regards to weaponry and school tragedies, people who plan such incidents tend to store their tools in safe locations, which do not include schools. Flannery cites research that concludes that 0.5% of random student searches discover weapons, and none of these are firearms. Overall, the risks of random searches result in more harm via privacy violations and persecution than they do benefits in helping prevent undesirable practices, especially crime.
Many schools prohibit students from using phones during lessons with varying degrees of harshness. In some institutions, children are forbidden from having their communication devices visible throughout the day for any reason, such as if they fall out. However, some teachers went further with the policy, accessing the information on the devices for purposes such as the discovery of others who broke the rules on having silent mode enabled during school hours. “Court Gives School Officials Immunity” notes one such case, where a teacher searched a phone without probable cause, but the court ruled in their favor, citing a lack of relevant legislation as the reason. As phones tend to house sensitive personal data, such practices are particularly harmful and require the institution of stricter requirements.
The advances in mobile technology are a relatively recent trend that has not yet received sufficient attention. Phones can now take high-quality photography and video and store and play a variety of files in addition to their normal communication functions, which have also expanded with the growth of the Internet. As “Court Gives School Officials Immunity” notes, the court that ruled against the student pointed out that the requirements for a teacher to access a student’s phone should be stricter than those for other property. Teachers should still be permitted to confiscate phones if they violate school policy, and the debate about those rules is a separate matter. However, they should not be allowed to access the data contained on the devices without a warrant, even with reasonable suspicion.
Privacy is a fundamental right that is established in the Constitution of the United States. The “Fourth Amendment” text mentions people, implying that the provisions apply to children and students in particular. The current search standards establish that teachers do not need a warrant, even though they are public officials. “New Jersey v. T.L.O.” mentions that the reasoning for the exemption is based on the need to establish an environment where learning can take place.
However, teachers and principals are not law experts, and they are therefore prone to misinterpretations of probable cause. They cannot be trusted to make appropriate judgments immediately, as the variety of cases surrounding the situation shows. As such, they should not hold the authority to conduct searches without a warrant based on their opinion about a reasonable cause.
However, the need to obtain a warrant would significantly complicate teachers’ ability to apprehend and punish offenders. The delay and demand for activities associated with the procedure would allow students an opportunity to eliminate evidence and waste the time of everyone involved. As such, it may be reasonable to establish a system for expedited warrant provision for schools, possibly including an expert associated with the police and remote submission of affidavits. Ultimately, as in the “New Jersey v. T.L.O.” case, a student’s guilt may be determined without a search, and privacy should take precedence. The inconvenience for officials is potentially problematic, but it is not as important as the execution of constitutional norms, and alternative solutions may be found if necessary.
With regards to less standard situations, such as random and phone searches, they require further investigation. As is shown above, random searches may be hurting minorities, and their benefits are small, especially with regards to their stated objective of preventing firearm incidents and drug epidemics. The viability of any approach that infringes on privacy should be confirmed decisively before it is put into practice. With regards to phones, school officials should not have the right to access students’ personal information, especially without a warrant. The only reason they can do so is a lack of appropriate legislation, which is an issue that should be resolved as soon as possible.
Student property searches without a warrant should constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, be unlawful. Teachers tend to be unable to determine whether a search is reasonable and infringe on student privacy as a result. While the need for a warrant would complicate the process of obtaining evidence against a potential offender, the difficulty is justified. Furthermore, other methods, such as random searches, are likely to be harmful and not helpful, contributing to the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” that affects minorities.
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Lastly, there is the issue of phone searches, which tend to concern large amounts of sensitive personal information. They are currently permitted because there is little to no appropriate legislation, but this situation should change as soon as possible.
“Court Gives School Officials Immunity in Suit over Search of Student’s Cell Phone.” Electronic Private Information Center. 2019. Web.
Ehlenberger, Kate R. “The Right to Search Students.”ASCD. Web.
Flannery, Mary Ellen. “The High Cost of Random Student Searches.” neaToday. 2017. Web.
“Fourth Amendment.” Cornell Law School. Web.
“New Jersey v. T.L.O.” Cornell Law School. Web.