Searches and Seizures in Public Schools
The Fourth Amendment to the constitution protects United States citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Our forefathers recognized the harm and abuses that occurred in the colonies to innocent people by the British, and they made sure to write protections into the U.S. Constitution. Fearing the police state that any nation has the potential to become and recognizing that freedom and liberty is meaningless when victimization by the police is a real and foreboding threat the Fourth Amendment was created. The Fourth Amendment has gone through many challenges and controversies in the past, and currently the issue of how the Fourth Amendment applies to students in public schools has come to be contended in the courts. While it is apparent to me that the Fourth Amendment should be no less applicable in schools than in the general society these essential Constitutional protections have been under fire in recent years and many rights have been taken away from students.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states, “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.” No where in this law does it create special divisions or classifications between adults and minors in society, so one should naturally assume that persons under 18 should be afforded the same protections as anyone over 18. The moment when minors are most at the mercy of government officials is while in school, and this is when these Constitutional Fourth Amendment protections are needed.
The largest and first assault on the rights of students to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures occurred in the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. In 1980 at Piscataway High School in Middlesex County, N.J. a few girls were caught smoking in the bathroom. After being brought to the principal’s office one of the girls, T.L.O., denied that she had been smoking. The principal then searched her purse looking for cigarettes. After finding a pack of cigarettes the search continued until the principal discovered evidence of drug dealing. This evidence was used to prosecute T.L.O. and ultimately she received a year of probation.
Supporting the applicability of the Fourth Amendment in public schools Justice White writing for the court opinion stated that, “It is now beyond dispute that “the Federal Constitution, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by state officers.” Equally indisputable is the proposition that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the rights of students against encroachment by public school officials.” he further stated that “In carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions pursuant to such policies, school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents, and they cannot claim the parents’ immunity from the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.”
While the opinion of the court takes care to point out the rights of students in school and despite the ruling, tempers it somewhat with its recognition of student’s rights. The concurring opinion by Justices O’Connor and Powell was not quite as nice. In Powell’s words “I agree with the Court’s decision, and generally with its opinion. I would place greater emphasis, however, on the special characteristics of elementary and secondary schools that make it unnecessary to afford students the same constitutional protections granted adults and juveniles in a nonschool setting.” This is clearly a detraction from the rest of the justice’s opinions and against the nature of the amendment and previous school precedents.
Ultimately the opinion of the court established a “reasonableness” approach to search and seizure rather than a “probable cause” approach as outlined in the constitution. This Supreme Court decision reinterpreted how the law applies in school with such wordings as: “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence”, “reasonably related to the objectives of the search”, “reasonably related in scope” clearly the court has created a new way to apply this law based on no precedent or prior interpretations. The court has thrown out the probable cause clause of the Fourth Amendment and invented a murky, dangerous classification of reasonableness. Clearly this will have the effect of further limiting the rights of students in public school.
The depreciation of Fourth Amendment protections in school have unfortunately continued further past the New Jersey v. T.L.O. decision. In the case of Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton the court approved of random drug testing of athletic students based on no suspicion or “reasonableness” at all. Writing for the opinion of the court Justice Scalia says that, “A search unsupported by probable cause can be constitutional, we have said, ‘when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.’” He then goes on to argue that “We have found such ‘special needs’ to exist in the public-school context. There the warrant requirement ‘would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures [that are] needed, ‘and strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based upon probable cause’ would undercut ‘the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools.’ T.L.O.”
In this attack Justice Scalia sets up that the half of the Fourth Amendment that provides for warrants and probable cause isn’t needed in all situations, and then proclaims public schools as a situation where probable cause and warrants are never needed. Scalia referred back to T.L.O. to support his claim that schools have “special needs” but yet goes further than T.L.O. and argues that not only does the warrant requirement not apply, but the situation of “individualized suspicion of wrong doing” that was present with T.L.O. should not apply either. Using Skinner as precedent Scalia maintains that random, suspicionless searches of students are allowed by the constitution in public schools.
The circumstances in the Verona School District 47J v. Acton involve a school policy of requiring random urine tests by athletes for drugs. James Acton, a seventh-grader, wanted to play football but was not allowed because he would not consent to these random searches. Because of the broad suspicionless nature of this search it has very negative implications to the Constitution and to the promise of the Fourth Amendment in public schools and in society at large.
Another important aspect of this case is the court’s argument that there is a lower expectation of privacy in regards to athletics. That due to changing clothes in front of other people on the team you have some how less of a desire to keep the contents of your veins and arteries a secret. This I find to be substantially suspect. While I do not argue that the student athletes have a lower expectation of privacy due to their situation in the locker rooms and activities undertaken together as a team, I do not believe that this expectation is nearly low enough to allow an invasion of ones own body for the purposes of a search. Clearly there is no way for anyone to have any indication of what chemicals are contained inside one’s own blood by a casual glance or even a thorough study of the outside of one’s body. The expectation of privacy regarding one’s blood would be equivalent to the contents of a safe hidden and locked inside one’s house. While this expectation of privacy is something to be respected it can still be violated by an individual suspicious of guilt accompanied by a probable cause and a search warrant. In that case the blood test or the opening of the safe would be justified in my opinion. But due to the nature of the randomness of this search it is obvious to me that it is unconstitutional and this court decision should be reversed.
These two court cases are very important in the evolution of the Fourth Amendment in public schools.