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Generally, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution applies to searches and seizures by government officials and this Amendment is made applicable to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by a government official without probable cause and a warrant. However, to be applicable the person must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place to be searched (i.e their home, bags, car, etc.). There are many places where a search and seizure may occur, including in a school.


Schools are considered public places and are deemed a special environment. The ordinary warrant requirements are not applicable to the same degree in schools and the burden of proof for a violation differs from a search or seizure conducted in one’s home. School officials are not required to have probable cause prior to searching a student or the student’s locker. The applicable standard for a search in a public school must be reasonable. Specifically, reasonableness is measured by two inquiries: 1) was the search justified from the beginning and 2) was the search reasonable in scope based on the circumstances. A search is deemed justified when the school official has reasonable grounds for suspecting the search will produce evidence that the student has violated or is violating a law. A search is within its scope if the search reasonably relates to the purpose of the search and is not excessive based on the age and sex of the student and the type of violation.


Additional factors affecting whether a search is reasonable as it relates to a student are: the child’s age, history and school record, prevalence and seriousness of the violation within the school, whether an emergency warrants proceeding with the search without a warrant, and the probative value and reliability of the information that was used to justify the search.


As previously mentioned, the school official does not need probable cause to conduct a search due to the concern for student and teacher safety. Reasonable suspicion has been determined to justify a warrantless search of a student’s purse even if the purpose of the search is to discover evidence of a student having violated a school rule. However, a police officer or school resource officer conducting a search as part of a police investigation must have probable cause to believe the person committed a crime or possessed contraband to conduct a search. The difference lies in whether the search is being conducted by the “outside” police department or by a police officer employed by the school district (i.e. school resource officer).


Moreover, school officials need not have any reasonable suspicion prior to drug testing a student athlete and such search will not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition. Students’ lockers may be searched without probable cause or based on general information that the locker may contain a weapon. Because the lockers are the school’s property, students do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents placed within the locker even if there is a lock on the locker.

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