Know Your Rights: The Right to Privacy in Schools

News & Politics
Metal DetectorsSo, the bad news is that we have fewer rights in school than we do outside of school. In fact, the Bill of Rights only partially applies in the schools. The good news is, the 5th Amendment still applies to us, and there are some standards that protect our privacy. So let's get the facts straight. The more we know about our rights, the more leverage we have against those people and institutions that threaten them. Knowledge equates to empowerment.

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP

Among the list of students' grievances against their schools is the use of metal detectors. "I don't think that [metal detectors] should be there because they are completely ineffective," says Chris Kelly, 17, of North Atlanta High School. "You can set them off, and then no one even pays attention."

But such detection is allowed in Georgia and is arguably a much lesser intrusion of privacy than, say, a frisk might be. In general, the metal detectors used in Georgia's schools are placed as entrance bars. That way, all persons entering the building are subjected to identical searches. Of course, in the case of metal detectors the search is for weapons. In schools that use metal detectors, higher value has been placeed on the safety of a school than on the students' privacy.

ARE THEY ALLOWED TO DO THAT?

Personal rights play second fiddle to public safety when we hit the issue of locker searches. According to Lani Ray, coordinator of student discipline with Fulton County Public Schools, "Lockers belong to the school," and therefore, may be searched at any time.

Public schools in [certain counties] can conduct random locker searches, which includes the use of drug-sniffing dogs. Ryan Carr, 17, of Druid Hills High School speaks out on his school's use of dogs: "I don't like the drug-sniffing dogs. I think it's just looking for problems....If they [students] are doing drugs and the dog catches them, then they are just going to get kicked out and do drugs at home."

SPREAD 'UM

It's a different story when it comes to our private property and bodies. A teacher or administrator must first have reason to believe a specific illegal item may be found in the possession of a particular student before the student or his/her car or bag can be searched.

However, this is not as much protection as everyone else gets under the 4th Amendment of the Constitution outside of schools. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey vs. T.L.O. that unlike police, school authorities have the right to search students without a warrant.

The Jersey school felt it had the right to search any student at any time, while the individual felt such random searches were unconstitutional. The Court ruled that school administrators must first have "reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated either the laws or rules of the school," before that school official is allowed to conduct a search.

"Personal rights play second fiddle to public safety when we hit the issue of locker searches."
In all cases, the probes must be conducted in a reasonable way. In other words, the search must be appropriate both for the age of the student and for the nature of the searched.

John Elmore, coordinator of student relations at the DeKalb Board of Education, asserts that body searches must be conducted by an adminstrator with an adult present, rather than by an ordinary teacher alone with the student.

According to Fulton County procedures, a pat-down will be "conducted in private by a school official of the same sex and with an adult witness, when feasible."

"Students' private domains [book bags and cars] are usually not searched unless sufficient reason is provided," says Ray. She defines sufficient reason as "compelling reason and compelling interest to know an illegal or harmful substance or item was there."

YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT.

Though in the majority of situations, you should not fear answering the questions of either a teacher or administrator, you are still protected by the 5th Amendment. If you believe you are suspected of a crime, you may choose to remain silent. "Don't explain, don't lie, and don't confess," advises a pamphlet produced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

If you feel confused as to what to do, you can request your parents or a lawyer. Your right to remain silent is applicable even if the student has simply broken a school rule. Anything you say can be used against you.

DOES PRIVACY RULE AT PRIVATE SCHOOL?

The answer may surprise you. Susan Percy, director of communications at Paideia School says private schools "have to follow the law but have some flexibility that public schools don't." Private Schools have the leeway to set their own search and seizure policies so long as they don't conflict with the law. For instance, Paideia does not have a policy about searching students or their possessions because such a situation has not come up. However, if the school had "good reason" to suspect clandestine activities, the student's case would be reviewed and weighed against the school's need to protect its students and faculty.

Contrarily, Pace Academy does have a search and seizure policy in its handbook. Lolly Hand, head of the upper school at Pace, says if they had credible evidence and reason to believe a student had a weapon they'd call the student, as it is policy for students to be present to face accusations.

Regardless of whether a school is public or private, it is Georgia law that any school finding drugs or weapons on its students must contact civil authorities and have the matter legally dealt with as it is a civil offense. [Find out what the laws are in your state.]

LIVING IN A POLICE STATE?

Can we, as students, have our cake and eat it in school? The answer is not always. Students do have a 5th Amendment right, but we can be searched if it's the school's property at anytime. And if it's our property (including our bodies), we can be seached if they have resonable evidence to suspect they will find an illegal item. So that leaves us to either suck up the lack of 4th Amendment rights in schools, or petition school boards for a change in policy. Either way, it ends with us.

"I think they should have the same standards inside as outside," says Aubrey Daniels, 17, of Lakeside High. "If you are required to attend school, which is public property, then you shouldn't have to lose your rights."

Dana is a senior at Lakeside High in Atlanta, GA.
Thuvia Jones, VOX staff, contributed to this story.

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