Rights to Privacy - In the Courts!

New Jersey v. T.L.O., 1985

A teacher in a New Jersey high school found a student and her companion smoking in a school bathroom, breaking a school rule. When taken to the vice principal’s office, the student denied smoking, but the vice principal demanded to see the student’s purse. In it, the vice principal found a pack of cigarettes and some marijuana. When the student challenged this search, saying it was a violation of her privacy rights, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the search of the purse was allowed. They stated that although students do have some rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment, those rights must be balanced with the need of school officials to keep order in the school. Specifically, the court stated that the search was legal because the school official had “decent reason” to search the purse. If the school wants to search a student’s belongings to maintain order, officials must have a “reasonable suspicion” that something is wrong and must conduct the search in a reasonable and respectful manner.




Commonwealth v. Cass, 1988

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that a school-wide search of 2,000 student lockers by two police officers and a trained dog was OK. The court stated that “although the students … do possess a legitimate expectation of privacy in their assigned lockers, that privacy expectation is minimal.” School officials had kept a master key that would allow them access to any locker, and they told the students that their lockers might be searched. Because the court stated that the school’s interest in keeping drugs out of school outweighed the slight intrusion into students’ limited privacy rights, the search was reasonable.

No Link Available



In re B.R., 1999

A student (“B.R.”) who was standing in the hallway with his friends told a nearby teacher that he was going to damage the school’s communication system. Later, he said that he was going to bring a gun to school. B.R. was found guilty of making “terroristic threats” and was put on informal probation. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania said his conviction was OK, even though B.R. did not directly threaten the teacher. Specifically, the court stated that “the specific nature of B.R.’s threat, to bring a gun to school, could have been reasonably inferred by any teacher in the public school system at that time as a threat to his or her personal safety.”

No Opinion Link Available



In re D.E.M., 1999

The police told school officials about an anonymous tip that a middle school student had a gun on school property. The principal of the middle school immediately questioned the student in his office. Later, school officials searched the student’s locker and found a gun. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania said that both the questioning and the locker search were legal because the school principal wasn’t acting for the police. The principal, unlike police, does not need “probably cause.” The court even went so far as to say that the principal didn’t even need a “reasonable suspicion” to detain and question the student in his office about the tip concerning his gun possession. (The court noted that he would need a reasonable suspicion to search the student.) This case again proved that students’ privacy rights are very limited in school, as the safety and welfare of the school environment outweigh a single student’s privacy concerns.

No Link Available



Vernonia School District v. Acton, 1995

James Acton signed up to play football at his school in the Vernonia School District. When the school required him to take a drug test, James refused. As a result, the school said he couldn’t be on the team. James challenged the school’s random drug testing policy, saying that it violated his Fourth Amendment rights. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After long debate, the court sided with the school district. It said the drug policy did not violate the Fourth Amendment. It stated that student athletes shouldn’t expect much privacy because they’re used to sharing a locker room where they can change clothes and shower. Also, the drug testing (which involved taking urine samples) wasn’t any more intrusive than a simple visit to the school bathrooms or getting a check-up at the doctor’s office. It was also noted that the athletes at the school were known to be the ringleaders in the local drug culture. Finally, the school’s interest in creating and maintaining a drug-free learning environment was strong, because their drug problem was growing. Even though the court allowed the random drug testing, they warned: “We caution against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass constitutional muster in other contexts.” This was a landmark decision in the Supreme Court, but it hardly halted the debate on whether random drug testing is constitutional.




In re F.B., 1999

A Philadelphia high school used a hand-held metal detector to do weapons searches of all the students who entered the school. One day, after detecting metal on a student, the security guards found a Swiss Army-type knife on the student. When the school filed charges against the student for carrying a concealed weapon on school property, he challenged the search. He said that the search wasn’t constitutional because there was no reason to suspect him in particular. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania sided with the school. They said the high school could use metal detectors to search students without having a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing because the searches were in no way intrusive. Students and their parents also had been told ahead of time about the searches, and the purpose of the metal detectors was purely to keep the school safe.

No Link Available