• U.S.

Education: Search Rules

4 minute read
Ezra Bowen

Theodore Choplick, assistant vice principal at Piscataway High School in New Jersey, thought he was doing a reasonable thing. He opened the purse of a 14- year-old girl who had been caught breaking school rules by smoking in the lavatory. The girl denied she had been smoking in the lavatory or that she ever smoked. Choplick figured that the contents of her purse would show whether she was lying. They did. The purse contained cigarettes, marijuana and some notes suggesting that she was selling pot to other students. Choplick called the police.

Last week, after three lower court proceedings and nearly five years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that Choplick had indeed been “reasonable.” In so doing, the court held in law what many principals and teachers have held in practice: public school is a special place wherein the usual guarantees and restrictions of the Fourth Amendment regarding search and seizure of an individual or his property do not necessarily apply. The amendment specifies that a search may not be “unreasonable,” and it indicates that authorities can obtain a search warrant only for “probable cause” that something illegal will be found. But, wrote Justice Byron White for the majority, any public school student can be searched by school officials without a warrant and upon nothing more than “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.”

At Piscataway High, Principal James Koch, proud of the “tight ship” he runs, said that the decision “puts an element of safety and stability back into public schools,” without which “no education can take place.” At other schools around the country, the judgment brought more applause and, in some states, outright relief. According to Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, teachers and administrators, uneasy about their rights of search, “have been looking the other way” when they sensed that something wrong was afoot.

/ In at least a score of prior cases from Alaska to Georgia involving school searches, lower court decisions have been sending what Thomson calls “a mixed message.” A Louisiana court ruled for the stricter standard of probable cause; a few other states have cast school officials in loco parentis (in the place of a parent), able to search pretty much at will. But most lower courts have presaged the Supreme Court ruling for reasonable grounds, allowing the kind of search Choplick made.

In declaring reasonable grounds as the minimum standard, Justice White noted that school personnel are not surrogate parents but state officials, who must respect the pupils’ general right to protection under the Fourth Amendment. Nevertheless, wrote White, “school disorder has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime . . . have become major social problems.” Thus a “proper educational environment requires close supervision of schoolchildren,” along with “a certain degree of flexibility in school disciplinary procedures.” The key, White declared, is to strike a “balance” between the schoolchild’s right to some privacy and the school’s need to keep order.

In a partial dissent, Justice William Brennan warned that White’s balancing act “portends a dangerous weakening of the purpose of the Fourth Amendment to protect the privacy and security of our citizens.” James Weill, legal director of the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund, claimed that “the court hasn’t been sufficiently protective of the unique status of children.” Weill believes the court should offset children’s vulnerability by giving them added rights and protections.

However, these views reflected the endless tension between conservative and liberal interpretations of the Constitution. Teachers and principals were more concerned with the decision’s effect on day-to-day discipline in the schools. A jubilant Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of the ruling, “It sends a message to students that school buildings are . . . off premises to troublemakers.” Concluded Piscataway Principal Koch: “The rights we have had have been clarified and justified.”

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