Our conference Q&A session was a big hit, but not all of the questions could be answered. Let’s take a look at one. . .
Q: When do student searches of their person and clothing cross the line?
A: The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution governs the legality of student searches. A search, including a strip search, meets Fourth Amendment standards when it is (1) justified at its inception in that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student violated or is violating the law or school rules, and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justify the interference in the first place, meaning that the measures used are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. A recent federal suit out of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates how this legal standard comes into play when a strip search is involved.
The case, D.H. v. Clayton County School District, involved an assistant principal’s decision to conduct a strip search of a minor student, D.H., after three other students had been found in possession of marijuana — one in his underpants, the second in his sock, and the third in his backpack. One student who had been questioned that day implicated D.H. and so D.H. was brought into the office for questioning. Present during the questioning were three other students, a deputy, and the assistant principal. The suit alleged that the assistant principal searched D.H.’s backpack and then told him to take off his socks, shoes, shirt, and pants. It was disputed whether the student was asked to pull his underwear all the way down or just pull out the waistband, but the suit claims that D.H. pulled his underpants down to his ankles, despite his request that the search take place in the privacy of a bathroom. No drugs were found in D.H.’s backpack or clothing. D.H. sued, claiming a violation of the Fourth Amendment. When the trial court denied the assistant principal’s request for judgment, he appealed. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit determined, first, that the assistant principal’s search of D.H. was supported by a reasonable suspicion and, thus, it was justified at its inception. The record showed the presence of drugs at school is a serious problem, marijuana had been found on three other students, those classmates claimed D.H. also possessed marijuana, and another student had hid marijuana in his underpants earlier that day. However, the appeals court found that, although the search was justified at its inception, it was not reasonable in scope. Requiring the student to remove all of his clothing in front of his peers “bore no rational relationship to the purpose of the search of D.H.” Because the assistant principal could have used substantially less intrusive means to determine whether D.H. was in possession of drugs, the court found it unconstitutionally excessive. According to the court, the assistant principal could have had the other students leave, or conducted the search in the privacy of the bathroom, or simply asked the student to pull out his waistband instead of stripping naked. The court of appeals, therefore, allowed the case to proceed against the assistant principal.
This case demonstrates that, even if there is a suspicion of wrongdoing that warrants the search of a student’s person or clothing, officials have to take steps to ensure student privacy. These types of searches represent a “serious intrusion upon the students’ personal rights,” and are “inherently embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating.” According to the court, strip searches are “categorically distinct” from other less-intrusive searches of a student’s outer clothing or belongings. Therefore, school officials must have information leading them to believe there is at least a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing. Otherwise, the search will be excessive in scope and violate the Fourth Amendment.