Student Searches in Schools: What Are My Child’s Rights?

As a parent, you probably spend much of your time concerned over whether your child can avoid trouble and make the right decisions to propel themselves to a bright future. No matter how great of a parent you may be, sometimes kids are going to be kids and screw up sometimes. This blog will take an in-depth look into student rights when it comes to criminal investigations and police searches of persons and property at school.

It is fairly well known that juveniles or individuals under 18 years of age are typically treated differently during the juvenile court process. Briefly, when a juvenile commits an act which is commonly defined as a crime by the adult courts, it is actually called a delinquent act when committed by a child. The law further goes on to define a child who commits a delinquent act as a delinquent child if the child is found to have committed a delinquent act; needs care/treatment/rehabilitation that the child is not receiving, is not likely to accept voluntarily and the treatment is unlikely to be provided without intervention by the court. Additionally, there are various delinquent acts and other situations where a court could waive the child to adult court. For more information on this process, see our previous blog entitled “Waiving A Juvenile To Adult Court In Indiana“.

Your Fourth Amendment Rights

Generally, when it comes to police searches and criminal investigations, most people know they have certain Fourth Amendment rights that provide “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effect, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” However, the United States Supreme Court has held that “a school official’s search of a student is not subject to the fourth amendment warrant requirement and does not require the same degree of suspicion that constitutes probable cause.” Due to this ruling, lesser standards are sometimes applied to student searches in schools depending on the situation. Indiana courts have two different standards, depending on the amount of police involvement, which they use to determine if student rights were violated by a searched. Those two standards are a reasonableness standard and the traditional probable cause and warrant requirement standard the Fourth Amendment provides to adults. Which standard is used depends on the amount of police involvement in the search.

The Indiana Supreme Court in Myers v. State divides school searches into three categories and uses the following set of standards:

  • where school officials initiate the search or police involvement is minimal, the reasonableness standard is applied;
  • where the search is conducted by the school resource officer on his or her own initiative to further educationally related goals, the reasonableness standard is applied; and
  • where “outside” police officers initiate the search of a student for investigative purposes, the probable cause and warrant requirements are applied.

The first Myers situation applies when as school officials, such as a vice principal, teacher, or other school personnel (think individuals whose job duties do not center on investigation or discipline) are the main parties involved in the investigation and police involved is limited to just being a presence for security reasons rather than actively investigating students and conducting searches. In United States Supreme Court Case New Jersey v. T.L.O., a teacher discovered a student smoking cigarettes in the school bathroom. Because smoking was a violation of school rules, the teacher reported the incident to the vice principal who questioned the student and conducted a search of their purse which yielded contraband. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the teacher’s observation was enough to justify the search and because the search was conducted by school officials in furtherance of educational goals, the court held the search was constitutional.

The second Myers situation applies when there is a bit more involvement by the police or the school resource officer. For example, say school officials received an anonymous tip that a student is carrying marijuana in their pant pocket. If school officials confront and question the student along with a police officer and the officer conducts the search, this would be considered a situation under category 2 and the reasonableness standard will apply. The difference here is the situation did not originate as a police investigation that was executed at school but as a school rules infraction investigation where the police presence was minimal.

Finally, the third Myers situation applies when police involvement is at a much greater degree than explained above and outside police officers, other than the school resource officer, are involved in the investigation. An example of this situation would be if police are monitoring a student for drug dealing at their residence and decide to execute a warrantless search and arrest while the individual is at school. Without more facts on how the case is tied to the school, the student would have the usual fourth amendment protections against warrantless search and seizure.

If a student falls under the first or second Myers situation, a court will apply the reasonableness standard to determine if the search was proper. To determine if the search by school officials was reasonable, courts first look to whether the search was justified at its inception and, second, whether the search as executed was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the original interference. Essentially, if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school, the search will be deemed reasonable. Next, the court will look to whether the measures adopted by the officers are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. For example, if officials receive a tip that an underage student is in possession of a cigarette in their backpack and the officials go forward with an intrusive pat-down or strip search, the search will likely be deemed excessively intrusive given the scope of the violation.

As you can see, there are many situations that can happen to a student at their school that can depend on how the law is interpreted. If your child finds themselves in a situation where they have been searched by police or school officials at school, it is imperative you talk to an attorney who is experienced in these matters who can help you determine if something was done improperly. Call one of the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Banks & Brower today at 317-870-0019 or email us at info@banksbrower.com.