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Student Searches in Private Schools

January 25, 2018

To help ensure school safety, is important for school administrators to prevent student possession of drugs, alcohol and weapons. One method is by conducting lawful searches of students, when necessary. This article will discuss best practices for conducting student searches in private schools.

Private v. Public School Student Searches

The fourth amendment protects individuals, including students, against unreasonable searches and seizures. In public schools, school officials are required to have “reasonable suspicion” in order to search students, while law enforcement officials are required to have “probable cause.”

However, private school administrators are not limited by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and not required to meet the higher “reasonable suspicion” standard. They are afforded more discretion with respect to student searches and seizures. Some private schools conduct student searches only when they have “reasonable basis to believe.”

The School Handbook

Unlike public schools, private school policies are typically governed by the rules they set among the school, its students, and their parents. Courts are more likely to enforce policies that are set forth in the school’s written policies.

Private schools are encouraged to prepare comprehensive policies that are given to parents and students. These policies should include how students need to conduct themselves in the school setting. Ideal policies should permit school officials to search a room, locker, vehicle, clothing and belongings when there is reason to believe that the student has violated the school’s rules.

Conducting Student Searches

In order to substantiate the search of a student, it is recommended that the school official be able to articulate the information that prompted his/her suspicion and the reasons that the area and subject of the search would reveal evidence of a violation of the law or school rules. In our opinion, the receipt of a tip that a student was in possession of a weapon or drugs justifies that the official had a reasonable basis to believe the student was in violation of the law and/or school policies.

When alcohol, drugs or weapons are in plain sight, a school official may search a student without justification. Further, if a student consents to a search or exigent circumstances threaten students’ health and safety, school officials are not subject to the justification requirement and may search the student immediately. In addition, any search of a student should be completed by two school officials – one who conducts the search and another as a witness.

While private schools provide leeway to take action to search for drugs, alcohol, and weapons, it is important to have carefully drafted policies and to include these policies in the school’s handbook.

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