The 14-year-old Piscataway, N.J., high school student was seen smoking in the girls' room by a teacher. When she denied that she had committed the offense and even maintained that she did not smoke at all, the assistant vice principal of the school searched her purse. He found cigarettes, cigarette papers, marijuana, a pipe, plastic bags, a substantial amount of money, an index card headed "People who owe me money" and two letters that implicated her in marijuana dealing. Should the search have been conducted in the first place? The Supreme Court considered the case and on Tuesday issued five separate opinions on the subject.
All the justices agreed that the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable search and seizure applies to schoolchildren. They, like adults, have a legitimate expectation of privacy that should be respected by school authorities. The court divided, though, on the standard that should be applied when judging whether searches in school are unreasonable and, therefore, prohibited. Justices Brennan and Marshall believe that the same standard should apply to these searches as applies when a policeman searches an adult with probable cause to believe that adult has committed an offense. It is a difficult test to meet.
The majority ruling gives schoolteachers and administrators more authority, citing the school's special responsibility to maintain an orderly environment in which learning can take place. Searches in this situation do not violate the Fourth Amendment if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a student is violating either the law or the rules of the school and the search is not excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the infraction. The majority opinion really validates what is already the practice of school officials in most states.
The ruling is not so broad as to allow strip searches for minor infractions, for example, or even harassment for behavior that is not unduly disruptive. But it should reassure school administrators who may have been uncertain about their authority to search for evidence of serious offenses against both school rules and criminal laws, such as those involving drugs and weapons.
The court specifically declined to consider other search questions not required by this case: Are lockers the property of the student or the school? Must a specific individual be suspected, or can groups be searched? Can evidence illegally obtained by school officials be used in court? But the ruling does establish guidelines that take into consideration both students' rights and educators' responsibilities to protect and to educate all the children in their charge. That makes sense.