Scholastic Action is a magazine that tries to awaken the interest of half a million junior high school students around the country in current events. Teachers have reported that its March 22 issue was particularly successful. One section began:
"Joey stretched his arms and put both hands on the cold, gray lockers. The man felt along Joey's sleeves. Then he felt down his chest and inside the pockets of his jacket.
"Joey is not a criminal. The man frisking him is not a cop. Joey is a high school student. The man who searched him is his history teacher."
It was then explained to the students that they were reading a hypothetical, as they say in the law schools. But, they were told, this kind of classroom search could now happen as a result of a new upreme Court decision. Said Scholastic Action: "If any school official has good reason to believe you are breaking a school rule, he or she can search your locker, your desk or you."
The section went on with a series of conflicting reactions to the court decision from various parts of the country. The kids reading the magazine were then asked what they thought.
The historic case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., had come down on Jan. 15. A majority of the court decided that students can be searched by school personnel according to a lower standard than adults. Instead of the searchers needing "probable cause" to believe that a search will reveal evidence of wrongdoing, all that is required to search a student in school is "reasonable grounds" to go through his locker or him.
At the time, a former U.S. commissioner of education, Dr. Harold Howe, did not share the general jubilation of teachers and administrators at this cut-rate constitutional standard for school kids. The justices, he sai, "have asked school authorities to be reasonable in making searches and have given them a hunting license to decide what is reasonable."
Ten days after the T.L.O. decision, 20 girls, all seventh graders, all under the age of 14, felt the palpable impact of the new Supreme Court ruling. Their lesson in the Constitution as a living document took place after a first-period gym class at Westwood Junior High School, Elyria, Ohio. When the seventh graders came back to their locker room, the physical education teacher told them a watch and ring belonging to a student were missing. First, the girls' lockers and purses were searched. The missing property was not found.
The assistant principal joined the gathering and informed the seventh graders that their persons were now going to be searched. He warned that if they did not allow female school officials to do the job, the sheriff and his men would be called in.
In the course of the strip-search of the seventh graders, they were commanded to drop their jeans to the floor and turn around as the physical education teacher, the guidance counselor and a clerk-typist visually inspected their entire bodies. A 12-year-old later described this lesson in civics: "We had to take off our shirt and then we had to take off our shoes. And then they looked down our bra to see if we had it or not."
No one did have the watch or the ring -- anywhere.
On Feb. 8, after due deliberation, Calvin Leader, the Elyria superintendent of schools, issued a formal statement: "The search was conducted in an orderly manner . . . it is my belief that the staff involved made the decision to conduct search activities after reasonable deliberation of the critical issues."
That's what the Supreme Court said was needed in these situations -- reasonableness.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, 13 of the students are suing Leader, five members of the board of education, the principal, the assistant principal a the three women who conducted the strip search. They want an end to strip-searching of students. Also, each seventh grader is asking for $38,000 in compensatory damages and another $38,000 in punitive damages.
It is the ACLU's contention that whatever the Supreme Court meant by reasonableness in school searches, no reasonable adult would interpret that word to mean a dragnet strip search of seventh graders. After all, the majority of the justices did say that the form of the search cannot be "excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."
However, the words "excessively" and "intrusive" may mean quite different things to eminently reasonable school officials and judges. During his dissent in T.L.O., Justice William Brennan predicted that these "amorphous" new standards for searching school kids would create increased litigation as well as uncertainty among teachers and administrators. The latter, Brennan said, are going to be "hopelessly adrift" in knowing when to search and how far to go.
The kids will be adrift too. There they are, the future guarantors of freedom in the world -- but standing now, legs spread, up against the wall.