Even before the Columbine and Sandy hook tragedies unleashed the latest wave of zero tolerance policies in public schools, the courts have struggled over the basic question of how to handle search and seizure in public schools. In particular, the courts have attempted to balance basic 4th Amendment protections against the desire of school administrators to have drug-free schools.

We’ll explore the key Supreme Court case addressing this question. We’ll then provide tips for how students can flex their rights in an environment where basic constitutional protections are less respected than they ought to be.

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

In the 1985 case New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court attempted to clarify the scope of legal searches in public schools. The case involved a girl who was caught smoking cigarettes in a bathroom. After a subsequent search, a teacher found illegal drugs in her purse.

Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of National Youth Rights Association, describes how New Jersey v. T.L.O. changed everything about the application of the 4th amendment towards students.

“Ultimately the opinion of the court established a “reasonableness” approach to search and seizure rather than a “probable cause” approach as outlined in the constitution. This Supreme Court decision reinterpreted how the law applies in school with such wordings as: “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence,” “reasonably related to the objectives of the search,” or “reasonably related in scope.” Clearly the court has created a new way to apply this law based on no precedent or prior interpretations. The court has thrown out the probable cause clause of the Fourth Amendment and invented a murky, dangerous classification of reasonableness. Clearly this will have the effect of further limiting the rights of students in public school.”

To illustrate this new standard, consider the the following scenario. If a police officer suspects someone of stashing illegal drugs in a bus station locker, the officer would usually need to obtain a warrant based on probable cause to search. However, if a public school teacher spots a glazed-eyed student furtively putting a suspicious package in their locker, this fact pattern might constitute reasonable suspicion. This alone would likely be enough to search the student’s locker. (Under New Jersey vs. T.L.O., no warrant would be needed.)

Students: How to Protect Your Rights

Despite the minuscule 4th Amendment protections afforded in public schools, students still have some options for protecting their rights. Most importantly, students have the right to remain silent when being interrogated by school officials.

Whether you are out on the street and being confronted by a police officer, or being called into your principal’s office, you always have the right to remain silent.

If you are ever being accused of something that could get you into serious disciplinary trouble, insist that the school contact your parents. Your parents can be your greatest protection against the pressure of school administrators to incriminate yourself or unnecessarily confess to something.

Apply tape if needed

Apply tape if needed

Parents: How to Protect Your Kid’s Rights

When it comes to disciplinary issues, school administrators are often looking to make an example of someone to show that the rules are being enforced. Moreover, administrators often act like police and use similar interrogation tactics to gain confessions. That’s why it’s important for both you and your children to appreciate the power of the right to remain silent.

Consider the cautionary tale of the Central Park Five. After being suspected in a rape they didn’t commit, the teenagers were subjected to intense police interrogation. When their parents and guardians arrived at the station, they urged them to “just tell the police what they want to hear.” The teenagers’ false confessions were later used as the key piece of evidence in their conviction.

Make sure you talk to your children about their rights. Let them know that you will always be their advocate if they’re accused of a crime or under investigation.

Parents & Students: Taking Action

Students, if you ever feel that your person or belongings have been unreasonably searched at school, work with your parents or guardian to make a plan of action. Be sure to write down everything as soon as possible, connect with witnesses, and alert your local branch of the ACLU.

Taking action won’t likely lead to a financial payout, but it might help change your school’s policy or simply prevent others from having to go through the same situation.