Is It Legal for a Teacher to Search a Student ?
Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be "justified at its inception" when there are 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.
In New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 105 S. Ct. 733 (1985) a student was discovered smoking in a school lavatory.
Although caught in the act, the student denied even being a smoker.
When the school's assistant vice-principal searched the student's purse for cigarettes, he also found marijuana, rolling papers, and other paraphernalia. In holding that the search was reasonable, the Supreme Court acknowledged the difficulties faced by schools in maintaining discipline.
The Court observed that the majority of lower courts had held, "the Fourth Amendment applies to searches conducted by school authorities, but the special needs of the school environment require assessment of the legality of such searches against a standard less exacting than that of probable cause." Id. at 332 n.2, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 728-29. Agreeing with those courts, the Supreme Court held:
The legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.
Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider "whether the . . . action was justified at its inception," Terry v. Ohio, [392 U.S. 1, 20, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 905, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968)]; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted "was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place," ibid.
The requirement of reasonable suspicion is not a requirement of absolute certainty: 'sufficient probability, not certainty, is the touchstone of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment . . . .'" T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 346, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 737 (quoting Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 804, 28 L. Ed. 2d 484, 490, 91 S. Ct. 1106 (1971)).