Recently in Quebec, a high-school staff stripped searched a class of twenty eight sophomores before a math exam. On the day of the exam, the staff requested that every student place their cell phone on the teacher’s desk in order to prevent any cheating. When the staff realized one of the phones could not be accounted for, they initiated a search for the phone by separating the students into two rooms by gender. The staff then proceeded to tell the students to remove their clothing one by one. The action taken by Quebec school officials raises the following question: what rights or expectations in relation to privacy do students have once they enter the school house gates?
In the United States, this question can be answered under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. It also ensures that every person’s “expectation of privacy” is free from unreasonable governmental intrusion. This means that the government cannot search you, your home or your belongings unless it is necessary considering the circumstances at the time
However, what happens to those rights once a student enters the school house gates? Does the student lose some of that right to the discretion of public school officials? When can a public school search a student or a student’s locker, backpack, purse, or other possessions? In 1985, that was the question before the Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). In that case, a few high school girls were caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. They were sent to the principal’s office where the Assistant Vice Principal then searched the purse that belonged to one of the girls, T.L.O. (T.L.O. represents the initials of the student to protect her privacy as a minor). When the principal searched T.L.O.’s purse, he found additional cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia.
After T.L.O. was charged in juvenile court, she appealed on the grounds that the marijuana evidence should have been suppressed because the search violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that a search of a student under the Fourth Amendment must take into consideration all of the “circumstances” at the time. Thus, a school official’s search of a student is reasonable as long as there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the search will produce evidence that violates the law or the rules of the school and the search is not “excessively intrusive.” As for T.L.O., a search of her purse for additional cigarettes was found to be reasonable and not “excessively intrusive.”
Twenty-five years after the T.L.O. decision, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of strip searches by school officials in the case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding. In that case, then 13 year old Savanna Redding brought a claim for unreasonable search and seizure against her school district. Redding claimed school officials violated her Fourth Amendment rights when they stripped searched Redding because they suspected Redding of concealing over-the counter ibuprofen tablets. In issuing its decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that a tip received by the school gave school officials reasonable grounds to suspect Redding of hiding ibuprofen pills in violation of school rules. And although a search of Savanna was reasonable, the Supreme Court found that the nature of the search, a strip search, was “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”
As for the Canadian strip search, if these events took place in the U.S., the Canadian public school officials would likely be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Although, the school officials reasonably suspected that one of the students in the classroom took back the cell phone in violation of the school test taking policy, the strip search of the students would likely be considered “excessively intrusive” if such search occurred in the U.S., depending on the age of the students and the circumstances for the search.
A special thanks to Melissa Cefalu a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.