Students' Rights Briefings

Rights to Privacy

One of the hottest topics in the students’ rights movements today is the question of whether or not school officials have the right to conduct searches of students and random drug testing. The legal basis for those opposed to such actions is the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of persons or property. Here is the exact wording of the Fourth Amendment:

“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.”

Although the Fourth Amendment seems very firm, students do not have the same rights to privacy as adults. Normally, if police and other authorities wish to search an adult, they need both a warrant and “probable cause” that someone has done something wrong. School officials only need a “reasonable suspicion” that a search will produce evidence. The school has permission to search places it owns and students only occupy, such as a school locker. However, students must be notified when their lockers are searched, and they must be offered the chance to be present during the search, along with a witness.

Basically, a search is reasonable when it is based on a common-sense interpretation of facts and circumstances. A reasonable suspicion cannot simply be based on a hunch or rumor. Usually, however, courts give school officials the benefit of the doubt when it comes to determining whether reasonable suspicion was present. Courts have stated the following examples are justified “reasonable suspicion” circumstances:

  • If the student acted suspiciously or guiltily when he saw a school security guard
  • If the student staggered around or slurred his words, which would suggest illegal alcohol or drug use
  • If the student held clear plastic bags and a wad of money in his hand, which would suggest illegal drug sales
  • If the student or his presence smelled of marijuana smoke
  • If the student’s suspected misconduct was reported by a teacher, a classmate or the student himself

The courts try to balance a student’s privacy rights against the school’s interest in safety and discipline. The courts have to try to remain neutral, and they have to keep in mind both the students’ fundamental privacy rights and the simple safety concerns of the school.

Rights to Privacy - In the Courts!