The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
Are locker searches in public schools legal? What about strip searches of students?
Locker searches are always OK. Strip searches can be OK, but only if the school is extremely careful.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." It’s designed to protect against searches and seizures done under some kind of Federal or State authority.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court frequently says that public school students have constitutional rights, they rarely find that those rights have been violated. With respect to the Fourth Amendment, they say that rights “are different in public schools,” and that students “have a lesser expectation of privacy than members of the population generally.”
As a result, the Supreme Court has approved everything but strip searches. Starting with clothing and purse searches of students suspected of smoking, it has gone on to OK drug testing of athletes, and random drug testing of any student participating in any extracurricular activity.
One reason such tests are OK, Justice Thomas said, is that urine tests are “minimally intrusive.”
The Illinois legislature has followed the Supreme Court’s lead. In 1996, it passed a law stating that “school authorities may inspect and search places and areas such as lockers, desks, parking lots, and other school property and equipment owned or controlled by the school, as well as personal effects left in those places and areas by students, without notice to or the consent of the student, and without a search warrant.”
The law declares that, “As a matter of public policy, the General Assembly finds that students have no reasonable expectation of privacy in these places and areas or in their personal effects left in these places and areas.”
That may surprise some students, who may have thought that lockers have locks for a reason. And it’s a little inconsistent to say teachers’ cars are private, but not students’.
The Illinois law gives a green light to anything short of a strip search. Student lockers, backpacks, and their vehicles in school parking lots are all fair game.
And, the law says the school can turn over to law enforcement anything a search finds.
Strip searches are the only student search the U.S. Supreme Court has ever found to violate the Fourth Amendment. In 2009, they said it could be constitutional, but only if the school specifically suspected a student had committed a crime, and was hiding dangerous contraband in their underwear.
In that case, the Court did not think that the ibuprofen the school was looking for (but didn’t find) was a dangerous enough drug to justify the invasiveness of a strip search.
Although strip searches of students are possible, they’re fraught with peril for the school. If they really suspect there’s truly dangerous contraband hidden in a student’s underwear, they should probably call the police.