Protecting Students from Illegal Searches and Seizures

Matthew Lynch writes that searches and seizures are a delicate business in education — his series of tips will help schools avoid problems.


Matthew Lynch

Protection against being subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures is provided to all American citizens by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Students, as citizens, enjoy that right, but school officials are less limited than police with respect to searches and do not have to procure a warrant or a probable cause to initiate a search. As long as they have reasonable suspicion, they can avoid accusations of illegal search and seizure.

With the increasing need to address issues such as the elimination of drugs and weapons in our schools, laws with respect to search and seizure have become more diversified. Newer means of detection of banned items have emerged, which has made search and seizure rules more complicated. On the whole, a search by school officials can be justified as long the following guidelines are adhered to:

  • The school employee has to have reasonable grounds to conduct the search and the circumstances have to justify the action at its inception.
  • The authorities conducting the search have to be careful about the reasonableness of their actions in terms of the situation and the age and gender of the students.
  • For any search to take place, a reasonable basis of suspicion against the student must exist. Mere doubts do not give license to the school authorities to conduct searches.
  • Routine desk or locker searches are acceptable and can be made a part of the normal procedure. It should be school policy that parents are informed beforehand of a locker search or desk search.
  • The more invasive a search, the stronger the probable cause should be.

Authorities must also take certain precautions when conducting search and seizure in schools. For example, a male official cannot conduct a physical inspection of a female student as that could amount to sexual harassment. If backed by a reasonable cause, searching students purses, book bags, lockers, packages and automobiles parked on school property is completely acceptable.

But in the absence of strong suspicion, any search, especially a strip-search, is utterly unacceptable. Personal searches are required to be carried out in private and by officials of the same gender. Also, the provision of alternate clothing for the accused while the search is being carried out is a must. The use of sniffer dogs is allowed when a reasonable suspicion exists that a student is carrying drugs.

Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; It’s Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). To read more of his work, please visit his blog at He can be contacted at

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August 29th, 2011

Matthew Lynch contributor

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