Falmouth student questions 'reasonable suspicion' standard for searches

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FALMOUTH — A Falmouth High School sophomore is lobbying to require the school to “establish probable cause, rather than reasonable suspicion” to search students.

The student, Brady Douglas, believes there’s been “a recurring theme” of violating student rights this school year with what he called “unwarranted searches and lack of probable cause.”

In response, Principal Peter Badalament this week said the rights of students are “always respected.” 

Douglas, however, said searches conducted by school staff “usually involve thoroughly inspecting the students’ backpacks and pockets. If anything prohibited is found a suspension will follow.”

“The issue with (these) search and seizures is that students feel their Fourth Amendment rights are being violated,” he said in a letter to The Forecaster.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

In support of his argument that probable cause should be the standard for searching students and their belongings, Douglas said “for students in schools with frequent searches, the pressure of being called to the office with no evidence of wrongdoings can weigh over (their) heads and cause anxiety.”

Douglas claimed few students carry things into the building worthy of confiscation.

“Regardless,” he said, “a sense of intimidation lies above many students’ heads knowing nothing more than classroom rumors could have them called to the office for unprovoked searches.”

According to Badalament, though, “Students are never targeted for searches. A student has to have engaged in a behavior that warrants further discussion. If we believe that a student might be in violation of a school rule, he or she receives significant rights of due process.”

And, he said, “Even when a student is found in violation of school rules, he or she is treated with dignity and great care.”

Badalament also said there’s been no shift in school policy in terms of searching or questioning students about contraband items, adding “very few students are searched and even fewer are found in possession of prohibited items.”

“On the limited number of occasions that students are found to be in possession of prohibited items, it is usually e-cigarettes,” he said.

“If a student is suspected of violating a school rule and may be in possession of a prohibited item, a school administrator will bring the student to the Main Office.

“There the student is told that they may have violated a school rule, and he or she is given an opportunity to respond. If the school administrator deems it necessary, the student may have his or her belongings searched and the student may be asked to empty his or her pockets.

“If the student is found to be in possession of a prohibited item, the school resource officer may be involved (and) parents are then contacted,” Badalament said.

He said under federal law, “School officials do not need to meet the same standard as the police (i.e. probable cause). The Supreme Court ruled that (all) school officials need is ‘reasonable suspicion’ to engage in a search.”

And, Badalament said, “No student is ever searched without meeting that (initial) threshold.”

He said the form of punishment for being in possession of a prohibited item in school “depends on the item found, the number of times a student has been in the office for similar behaviors and the student’s forthrightness.”

Badalament also said, however, that “if a student is found with weapons, drugs, alcohol or nicotine products, in almost all cases a suspension is imposed.”

In an interview, Douglas said he wrote his letter because “the issue of search and seizure in school came to my attention a few weeks ago when a few of my peers were searched by our school resource officer.”

“In my civics class we have been discussing public policy issues and I felt very strongly that students still possess their rights in school,” he said. “While I have not been searched, I have witnessed a close friend of mine being called down by our resource officer to be searched.”

Douglas said the incident made him wonder why students are allowed to be searched without a warrant or probable cause.

The three-sport athlete who hopes to study economics and business in college, then did some research on the Fourth Amendment, particularly as it relates to the rights of students in school.

“My goal was to bring public awareness and possibly bring change to the process of searching students in school,” he said. “Probable cause should be established to search students in school. It is a right.”

In the landmark 1985 case, New Jersey vs. T.L.O., which specifically involved the constitutionality of searching students in school, though, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reasonable suspicion standard.

The majority opinion argued that “against the child’s interest in privacy must be set the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds.”

In the same case, however, three judges dissented. They argued that adopting a reasonable suspicion standard for searching students was an “unclear, unprecedented, and unnecessary departure from generally applicable Fourth Amendment standards.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

A student at Falmouth High School is lobbying for school officials to apply the probable cause standard to students when searching them or their belongings. The Supreme Court, though, has ruled that for schools, reasonable suspicion is sufficient for a search.