It is well-established that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to public school students. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in 1969, “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). However, determining the “reasonableness” of a search is often easier said than done, as it depends on any given set of facts and constantly evolves as various courts address it on a case-by-case basis. As such, schools routinely face a dilemma when trying to balance its need to protect students against a student’s right to privacy.
The Supreme Court of Ohio recently issued a decision which appears to clarify search standards for Ohio’s school districts. In State v. Polk, 2017-Ohio-2735, a bus driver found an unattended book bag during a routine walk-through of a school bus and turned it over to the school’s safety and security resource coordinator. The coordinator made an initial cursory examination of the bag in order to determine its owner. He quickly figured out that it belonged to a particular student, and recalled rumors that the student was in a gang. The coordinator then took the bag to the school principal. Together they emptied the bag of its contents, which, the coordinator explained he would have done regardless of the rumor that the student was in a gang, since the bag was unattended and it was the school’s unwritten protocol to search unattended bags. In the bag, the coordinator found several bullets, which he did not notice when he initially examined the bag. After notifying police, the coordinator, principal and a police officer located the student and found a handgun in the bag the student was carrying. The student ultimately was charged with gun possession. As a defense to the charge the student claimed that the school conducted an unreasonable search.
The Court found the search to be reasonable and upheld the school’s warrantless search. The Court stated that the school’s unwritten protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags to determine ownership and whether contents are dangerous furthered a compelling governmental interest in keeping students safe. In particular, the Court noted that several schools have faced deadly shootings, such as Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary, adding that we now pursue a new fundamental value in our schools: security.
The Court also explained that a complete search of unattended bags is effective in ensuring that they do not contain dangerous contents, as a “cursory inspection might easily fail to detect the presence of small but dangerous items.”
As the definition of “reasonableness” continues to evolve, this case helps clarify standards for schools regarding how their need to protect its students is balanced against a student’s rights to privacy.