Though students retain their basic rights as American citizens when they enter the school building, the court system has placed some restrictions on student freedom to protect students and the mission of learning. Special issues such as illegal drugs, bullying, social networking and technological devices present unique cases that can alter a student's right to their belongings, depending on the situation. In any case, schools must present reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before searching or confiscating any student property.
Students' Constitutional Rights
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits the searching powers of the government and protects the privacy of citizens. Similarly, the Fifth Amendment protects students from being held or questioned about their belongings or activities without being informed of the charges or given a chance to tell their side of the story. Schools can search lockers, backpacks, personal devices and student cards if they have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, or if a student voluntarily consents to a search.
Officials can seize any belongings that are illegal, including drugs and weapons, and use them as evidence in court. These items can be confiscated without reasonable suspicion if the item is visible to anyone. Schools often use drug sniffing dogs to search lockers and backpacks for illegal substances. According to an article published by education association ASCD, this is legal because the dogs are technically sniffing the air around the lockers and backpacks, and not the items themselves. Such searches and seizures are generally protected due to concerns about student safety.
Personal Electronic Devices
If schools have a policy that bans personal electronic devices, including but not limited to cell phones, laptops or iPads, then teachers or administrators are allowed to confiscate these devices if students are using them against the policy. However, no school official is allowed to use or access files on these devices without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Students do not have to consent to searches of their personal electronic devices, under any circumstance. Schools must return personal electronic devices to students, but may establish policies for the circumstances under which devices are returned.
Some exceptions to student privacy are made when students use school property. In some states, schools are allowed to search lockers for any reason because the lockers belong to the school. Additionally, student data is not protected on school laptops or servers. A student's digital activities may be monitored and accessed at any time when he uses electronic devices owned by the school. As of 2013, the courts have not ruled on whether these types of searches are legal or illegal. Students must also turn over passwords to school-owned accounts and devices upon request.
Anna Tower has a B.A. in history and journalism from Washington & Lee University and a M.A.Ed. from the College of William and Mary. She has been writing since 2003 at various publications, including the "Rockbridge Report," the "Fairfax County Times" and "USA Today." Tower is certified to teach social studies, English and journalism in grades 6-12.