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Right to Privacy

Right to Privacy

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Home Civics Right to Privacy History The Fourth Amendment & Students

The Fourth Amendment & Students

  • Supreme Court has ruled that students don't abandon their rights when they enter the schoolhouse door
  • But the Court has also ruled that students' rights to privacy are more limited than those of adults

A teacher sends a student to the vice principal after seeing her smoking in the girls' room. When the student denies any wrongdoing, the vice principal tells her to hand over her purse. Inside, the principal finds a pack of cigarettes, as well as a small bag of marijuana, rolling papers, a stack of dollar bills, and a list headed "people who owe me." The vice principal calls the police and the girl finds herself charged with possession with intent to distribute.

A twelve-year old is not allowed to play football on his school team because he refuses to consent to the school's mandatory drug testing program for student athletes. All athletes are tested at the start of the season, and ten percent, selected randomly, are tested weekly over the course of the season. During the tests, an adult monitor, with back turned, remains in the room while the student urinates into a container.

The courts have ruled on a long list of cases clarifying the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment, the amendment protecting us from unreasonable searches. The courts have decided when a warrant is required, what constitutes a search, and whether illegally obtained evidence can be used in court. But sorting out the Fourth Amendment rights of students has proven a separate and, in some ways, more complex task. More than fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that students don't abandon their rights when they enter the schoolyard. But the courts have also held that students, who are usually minors, do not possess the same rights held by adults. For starters, the courts have accepted the argument that school officials operate "en loco parentis," as sort of substitute parents for kids while at school. Moreover, the courts have acknowledged that schools have complex responsibilities, including maintaining campus safety and addressing drug and alcohol use, that require extra authority.

Where, then, is the line drawn? To what extent does the Fourth Amendment apply to students? What can be searched and on what grounds? Exactly what sort of privacy rights do student possess at school?

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