One June 1, a Sheriff and 29 deputies shut down a high school for four hours and searched virtually all 900 students. The searches were quite intrusive, with at least one boy reporting that his genitals were cupped or groped. Girls reported officers putting fingers inside their bras and underwear. It was confusing and upsetting to everyone, but especially to the special education students.
The Sheriff’s office came to the school planning to target 13 students, but the sheer number of officers implies they always intended to perform the mass search.
Can they do that? Should they do that?
It’s not at all clear that law enforcement has the right to perform a mass search at all, much less an intimate search on students who aren’t suspected of any crime. A civil lawsuit has been filed on behalf of some of the affected kids.
Here’s what we know about the legality of searches in schools.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is supposed to keep us free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Law enforcement is expected to be careful when stopping, frisking, examining the belongings of, or arresting anyone. All of those are considered searches and, depending on the circumstances, could be reasonable or unreasonable.
Whether a search is reasonable isn’t a technical legal question but one ordinary people can answer. The courts usually gauge the issue on a couple of factors: whether the officer had a specific, articulable reason to suspect the person searched, and whether the situation was one in which a reasonable person would have expected privacy.
A wrinkle in this area of law is that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two 1980s cases that students legally have “a lesser expectation of privacy” in the school environment than do people in the population at large. “Lesser” doesn’t mean they have no expectation of privacy, and it seems unlikely a court would say that students have no Fourth Amendment rights at all.
However, those were cases in which school administrators, not law enforcement, performed the searches. In this case, it’s clear the mass search was carried out by the Sheriff’s office, although school administrators were present at some or all of the searches. It’s not clear whether the school principal or administrators gave permission for the searches or simply stood by while it took place.
Moreover, it’s amazing that nearly 900 students could be searched — rather intimately — merely because a small number were suspected of drug activity.
Do you think the police should be allowed to shut down a school for half a day in order to search students they don’t even suspect of a crime? If they can, should they?