We work with a lot of school districts to help them find grant funding to address school security and emergency management issues. Our guest blogger John, from LegalMatch.com, was kind enough to share his insight into the legal issues that go along with addressing school security issues.
Schools, especially public schools, need to be concerned with security. With problems like bullying, drug use on campus, and (in the most extreme circumstances) school shootings on everybody’s mind, no school wants to be accused of having lax security.
However, at public schools there are legal and constitutional issues at play when it comes to security. While school officials have much more leeway in searching students and their belongings on campus than, say, a police officer at a traffic stop would, the law and the Constitution do not cease to exist when a student sets foot on campus.
So, school administrators and teachers should know the constitutional and legal protections for privacy, due process, and freedom of expression that apply to students in public schools.
The right to privacy from the government is probably strongest in our homes. That is to say, in a private residence, the government needs a very strong justification to invade your privacy. However, the right to privacy is probably at its weakest when applied to students in public schools. There are good reasons to limit students’ right to privacy: they are minors, and some rules that restrict their freedom are necessary to protect them from themselves. When a student is at a school, the school is responsible for their safety, and acts “in locus parentis,” meaning “in place of the parents,” so the school, during school hours, has many of the same responsibilities and powers over students that their parents would have.
So, a school can implement security measures like metal detectors at the doors and in some circumstances, drug tests. However, the right to search students on campus is not unfettered. For example, the Supreme Court recently held that school officials (the school nurse, in this case) could not legally conduct a strip search of a student, searching for drugs (in this case, it was ibuprofen), when they do not have reason to believe that there is a threat to the safety of other students, or that the item they’re looking for is hidden in a location that warrants a strip search.
Searches of lockers, on the other hand, are generally permissible because the lockers are school property. The expectation of privacy in a locker is far less than a student’s reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to his or her own body or personal belongings.
In today’s technological age, the extent of one’s legal right to privacy has frequented the headlines. While the school environment is considered separate from one’s home environment, it’s wise for school administrators and other interested parties to consider how security improvements might effect one’s privacy rights.
If you are a teacher, administrator, parent, or student, and have any questions about your legal rights and responsibilities, you should not hesitate to speak with an attorney who specializes in education law.
John Richards is a writer for LegalMatch.com and the LegalMatch.com Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation.
Looking for funding to improve your school's security? The Department of Justice just announced the 2011 grant program Secure Our Schools, facilitated through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office. For more information and to access the grant guidelines, talk to a Grant Helper.