This Supreme Court Decision Lowered The Standard For School Searches

Ryan Fan

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Anyone who has worked in a school knows how much liability bathrooms can be, which is part of the reason why many schools have punitive policies limiting the number of students who can go to the bathroom at a time, and when they can use them. I distinctly remember being tasked to clear out the boy’s bathroom, walking in, and seeing two high school students with boxing gloves and fighting and a crowd of four other boys watching. Needless to say, we had to crack down on that boxing ring very quickly.

There have been much darker stories of incidents that happen within bathrooms, through the grapevine or in the news. There were fights filmed on Instagram where students were brutally beaten, then featured across the local news. Teachers and administrators also have to be wary of drug use in bathrooms, and I have encountered marijuana walking past student bathrooms.

Recently, bathrooms have been linked to the culture wars surrounding trans students’ rights. But bathrooms were also the site of a monumental Supreme Court decision, long ago, limiting students’ Fourth Amendment rights.

When I was in high school, an acquaintance was suspected of being a drug dealer in an incident school administrators got involved in. People searched his locker and found marijuana and a knife, a search that got him in a substantial amount of trouble.

At the time, the search conflicted with our knowledge of the Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and I followed along with the crowd’s opinion: the school had no warrant or probable cause to search his locker, so the search was illegal and unconstitutional. To us, it was a horrible erosion of civil liberties, and all my friends who smoked marijuana were on very high alert. I am not sure what happened to the acquaintance, but there were significant consequences as a result of the search.

It turns out I had insufficient knowledge of the law at the time. A 1985 Supreme Court decision, New Jersey v. T.L.O., allows searches of students without warrants or probable cause as long as there are “reasonable grounds” for believing the search yields evidence of a violation. It is a case I’m studying in my School Law class for my Master’s Degree.

Charles Russo writes in his 2018 edition of The Law of Public Education that a case was eventually brought up to the Supreme Court. This is the story of New Jersey v. T.L.O. — its background, results, and ramifications for students and schools across America.

Background

If you can’t tell by the title of the case, the controversy surrounding this student search took place in New Jersey, particularly Piscataway High School, a very large high school in north-central New Jersey.

According to Russo, In 1980, a teacher found two girls smoking in the bathroom. One of the girls was T.L.O., the respondent in the Supreme Court case and a 14-year-old freshman. The girls were taken to the Principal’s office and met by the vice-principal, Theodore Choplick.

T.L.O.’s friend immediately admitted to smoking in the bathroom. T.L.O. denied she’d been smoking in the bathroom and said she didn’t smoke at all. Mr. Choplick had T.L.O. come into his office and demanded to see her purse. He opened her purse, then found a pack of cigarettes and removed the cigarettes. He also noticed a pack of rolling papers, which is commonly used for smoking weed.

Because he suspected there may be marijuana in the bag because of the rolling papers, Choplick kept searching the purse. He found a small quantity of weed, a pipe, “a substantial number of one dollar bills,” and many empty plastic bags. He also found an index card that seemed to be a list of students who owed T.L.O. money.

Vice Principal Choplick called T.L.O.’s mother and the police, and gave the police the evidence. At the police headquarters, T.L.O. admitted to selling marijuana and the state brought juvenile charges against her.

T.L.O., however, savvily fought the charges. She said the search violated the Fourth Amendment and she fought to suppress the evidence found in her purse and the confession at the police headquarters, which were both “tainted by the allegedly unlawful search.”

The Court’s reasoning

The case first went through three lower courts in New Jersey before getting to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of New Jersey said the Fourth Amendment applied to this case, but that the Supreme Court did not have reasonable grounds to search T.L.O.’s purse. All agreed the Fourth Amendment applied to the case.

The central question before the Supreme Court was whether evidence obtained by school officials without a warrant or probable cause was applicable to juvenile delinquency proceedings. The case debated students’ rights as well as the power of public school officials.

The Supreme Court also recognized any search, no matter how limited, was “a substantial invasion of privacy.” However, the Supreme Court also acknowledged the burden and expectation of teachers and administrators to maintain discipline in the classroom and on school grounds. The Court wanted to strike a balance between schoolchildren’s expectations of privacy and the school’s need to maintain an environment of learning.

Thus comes the siding with teachers and administrators over students — the Court ruled the school setting required an “easing of the restrictions” where teachers do not need to obtain a warrant for students suspected of violating school rules, since it would interfere with maintaining an environment of learning. The Court ruled school officials do not need a warrant before searching students under their authority.

The Court also ruled school officials do not need the legal standard of probable cause in conducting a search. Instead, to conduct a search, schools needed to determine the “reasonableness” of a search. But what is reasonableness?

Well, according to the Court, there were two expectations of reasonableness:

  • School officials must determine whether the action was justified at its inception, meaning there must be reasonable grounds a search will turn up evidence for a violation of laws or school rules.
  • School officials must determine whether the search “was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”

In short, privacy should be invaded “no more than is necessary” to maintain a safe and effective learning environment.

As for T.L.O., the search abided by the reasonableness standard. The Court distinguished between two searches — the search for cigarettes and then the search for marijuana. The Court found both searches reasonable — for the marijuana search, the identification of rolling papers was enough reasonable suspicion. The search then found other “drug-related activities” like single dollars, the pipe, plastic bags, which constituted even further search of the purse and the discovery of an index card of “people who owe me money.”

The Court concluded no part of the search for marijuana was unreasonable in a 6–3 majority opinion. Justices Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, and William Brennan provided the dissent, believing in the erosion of the probable cause standard. The descent gave rise to an exception to the Fourth Amendment, the “special needs” exception, where warrantless and probable cause-less searches could happen.

New Jersey v. T.L.O. would lay the precedent for student searches under the “reasonableness” standards until today and for the foreseeable future.

Takeaways

When I first heard about the case, it was during high school after my acquaintance got in trouble. I was vaguely familiar with it but only learned the details during my School Law class.

I think it’s important for students, teachers, and administrators to all be aware of New Jersey v. T.L.O. and cases like it to be aware of their legal rights and powers. Even as minors, students should be aware of their rights. There are also cases that limit students’ First Amendment rights like Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier allowing school officials to prevent publications of certain articles in the school newspaper.

As for New Jersey v. T.L.O., I had to determine whether a case study met the reasonableness standard for a student who had a journal titled “My Drug Diary” and then had her locker searched. But there have been more extensions to the “special needs” exception of the Fourth Amendment, such as public schools being allowed to drug test high school athletes for controlled substances and allowing roadblocks for a sobriety checkpoint program.

Originally, I thought it was a complete travesty the Supreme Court would seek to erode student privacy and constitutional rights like they did. Now, as a teacher who wants to delve deeper into educational and particularly special educational law, I see the case as much more nuanced and see the daily responsibilities of teachers and school administrators. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know the interpretation of the Constitution is always being redefined throughout our history.

References:

New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985)

Russo, C. J. (2018). The law of public education (10th ed.). Foundation Press.

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Originally published on CrimeBeat on June 20, 2021.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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