Student Privacy in Schools
By Veena Nesarikar (‘22) and Sumedha Kommaraju (‘22)
The right to privacy is a basic right of most American citizens. One of the main parts of the right to privacy is protection from unreasonable search and seizures. Although people may have these freedoms outside of school, how much privacy is one granted in school?
According to the website of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, “Despite court-imposed safeguards on students' constitutional rights, schools still have greater leeway in conducting searches than do police officers.”
Based on precedents established by past court cases, the school administration has the right to search student property such as lockers, backpacks, and vehicles. The website of American Civil Liberties Union stated that school administrators can also conduct drug or alcohol tests, and in certain states, strip searches.
Mr. Michael Scheese has been working as an assistant principal for three years at South Brunswick High School.
He said, “It could be a staff member who suspects that they saw something, [or] an exchange of something. We’ve had reports from students--they give us more information and we find out that it’s an issue that’s serious enough that we need to look into. Someone who brings something to us, or ‘sees then says something’ is basically what we would need to conduct a search.”
In an article posted on the website of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Kate Ehlenberger stated, “School officials need only reasonable suspicion to search students in public schools, but sworn law enforcement officials normally must have probable cause to search students.”
Mr. Scheese elaborated more on the consequences of finding something in a students’ belongings.
“It could be anywhere from detentions, all the way up to a multi-day, multi-week suspension. If it was something more serious, the student could be sent out to another school for a specific amount of time, and they’d come back after we think it’s safe enough to return,” he said.
On the website of Justia U.S. Law it said, “The school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.”
A school administrator can suspect that a student is breaking the law based on tips from other students, or even the behavior that the student in suspicion exhibits.
Mr. Scheese stated “There aren’t really limitations--as a school in the state of New Jersey, we need reasonable suspicion to search someone’s belongings, and that’s a very low bar. The police need probable cause, but we only need reasonable suspicion which is when we suspect something and we have the ability to search their belongings.”
An article posted on The National Criminal Justice Reference System website stated that in cases that are beyond school, a police officer would need stronger evidence in order to perform a search, and “probable cause” to search one’s home or belongings. This would require them to have solid, reliable information, rather than just a mere suspicion.
Mr. Scheese said “If there is a student that is uncomfortable with [a search], we’ve called parents, and explained to them, and they’ve talked to their child, and that will allow us to conduct [searches]. We’re on a lower threshold, people think of us like the police, but we don’t need probable cause.”
Students may not feel like they have the right to the privacy because of the “greater leeway” schools have. School officials have the ability to infringe of certain aspects of students’ privacy, but often in order to ensure the safety of the overall school.
Freshman Rahul Motwani said, “In certain situations, I think the administrator should be allowed to search through personal belongings, and when they [do the searches], they should have reasonable articulable suspicion.”
Some circumstances that require more attention could result in an administrator conducting a search because they believe that the school’s safety is more important than a minor invasion of privacy.
Mr. Scheese finished off the interview by saying, “If there was something like [imminent danger] you would know, everyone would know about it. There have been situations where we’ve looked into things but nothing [showed up] and hopefully we’ll never have that situation where there is imminent danger but it hasn’t risen to that level yet, and hopefully never will.”