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Criminal procedure

search and seizure—schools

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that the school setting requires some modification of the level of illegal activity required to justify a search of a student or the student’s property (purse, backpack, locker, phone, etc.).

The Court has held that there are two general requirements for a school administrator to search a student or the student’s property: (1) the school administrator must have reasonable suspicion (a lower standard than probable cause) that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating the law or the rules of the school; and (2) the scope of the search must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not be excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the suspected infraction. See Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009); New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325 (1985).

For example, there must be a reasonable suspicion of danger or that the student has hidden contraband such as drugs in the student’s underwear to extend the scope of a school search from outer clothes, backpacks, and purses, for example, to underwear and the likely exposure of private body parts.

This standard is designed to allow school authorities to maintain order in their schools without unduly burdening those efforts and without authorizing unrestrained intrusions on the privacy of schoolchildren.

In Texas, as in other states, the standard for conducting searches of students or their property in schools is guided by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, which has established that school administrators need only reasonable suspicion, rather than probable cause, to search a student or the student's property. This is a lower standard than is required for searches outside the school setting. The search must be reasonably related in scope to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive, considering the student's age, sex, and the nature of the suspected violation. The landmark cases that set these standards are Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding and New Jersey v. TLO. In practice, this means that a school administrator in Texas can search a student's backpack, locker, or phone if there is reasonable suspicion of a violation of law or school rules, but more invasive searches, such as those involving a student's underwear, require a higher threshold of suspicion, such as the potential danger or presence of contraband like drugs.

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