Can a school official search a student or his/her belongings?

Recently, I have been asked about whether schools may search students or their property that is located on school grounds.
While students still have constitutional rights while in school, those rights are lessoned because their expectation of privacy is diminished.  A school official can search a student or their property on a finding of reasonable suspicion, and do so without a warrant.
The leading case on this issue is a United States Supreme Court case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. This case provides some burdens that a school/school official must meet in order for a school search to be legal.  The standard is one of reasonableness.  Reasonable suspicion is something more than just a hunch, but less than the normal standard of probable cause.
The Court provided a two-part inquiry: (1) whether the action was justified at its inception, and (2) whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances, which justified the interference in the first place.
Therefore, the search is justified as long as a teacher or other school official has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search will turn up evidence that the student violated a law or rule of the school.  The scope of the search must also be reasonably related to the goal of the search and must not be excessively intrusive.  The kinds of factors that a court will consider to determine intrusiveness are: the particular incident, the student’s age, and the student’s sex.
There is a 2010 Michigan case that discusses the standards of a constitutional school search.  In that case, an anonymous tipster provided very detailed information to the Grand Rapids Silent Observer, a crime-stopper’s organization concerning the sale of illegal drugs at school.  The tipster provided the type of vehicle the student was using to sell the drugs.  All of this information provided the school with sufficient “reasonable suspicion” to search the student’s vehicle that was located in the school parking lot.
For more information, feel free to contact our office with any questions.


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