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Can I search a student’s backpack?

by School's Out Washington | | Posted under Opinions, Policy & Legislation

by Nicholas Bradford, Education Policy Intern

“The Washington state Supreme Court ruled [on August 2] that School Resource Officers (SROs) are police offers and therefore do not have the same jurisdiction a teacher or principal may have when it comes to discipline and searching students, ” announced the League of Education Voters. “This ruling came from the case State v. Meneese in which a Bellevue student appealed his conviction for carrying an air gun and marijuana to school after being searched by a School Resource Officer.”

Two issues are at the heart of this case State v. Meneese: What is the role of School Resource Officers (SROs) compared to administrators, and what rights do students have regarding searches. First, SROs are generally full commissioned uniformed officers of the law, as in this case.  Second, both Federal and State law protects persons from “unlawful searches and seizes;” this means a government actor needs a warrant supported by probable cause to conduct a search unless an exception applies.  The school search exception to the warrant requirement is well established under both Washington and federal law.  This exception is based on school administrators’ needs to maintain school safety as well as their non-law enforcement role.  The exception permits searches without the need for a warrant.

The criminalization of school misbehavior has disenfranchised youth across this state and the nation.

The two thresholds in this case for conducting a search are “reasonable suspicion” (school exception) and “probable cause.”  “Reasonable suspicion” is a lower burden of proof.  The full definition is something like “there is reasonable suspicion that something has happened.”  While on the other hand “probable cause” is more stringent and is “that a reasonable and prudent person (officer) believes that a crime has been committed.” The current ruling regarding school administrators determined that they have a lower burden of suspicion in order to conduct a search.  This ruling doesn’t change school administrators’ rights to search personal space based on reasonable suspicion.  The question that arises from this case is “what role is the officer in?”  Are they administrators or are they police officers?

They are… police officers and there for always held to the higher standard when arresting or searching suspects, according to the August 2 ruling.

I don’t want to discuss the details of this case, as no one is suggesting that what the student did was ok.  Possessing marijuana and carrying a BB gun on to school grounds is a SERIOUS offense.  But the ramifications of this case do set out to limit or change and hopefully clarify the role of SROs.  Throughout the nineties and into the 21st century SROs have had a growing presence, which has not always been a constructive one.  I don’t believe that police officers are bad people; I also don’t believe that ticketing and arresting students for misbehavior is an effective or healthy approach to school discipline.  The criminalization of school misbehavior has disenfranchised youth across this state and the nation.

The Texas Apple Seed Project reported that SROs in Texas wrote nearly 300,000 tickets to youth in school in one year!

Our problem in Washington is not as severe as that, but it still needs attention.  Looking forward I would recommend the removal of police officers from schools entirely.  There needs to be a better way of dealing with harm in the communities and our schools.  The question becomes how do we engage youth in our schools and communities?  Instead of pushing our youth away from school, instead of pushing them into the streets, through these isolating and exclusionary policies, we need new models to engage youth.

Guidance for afterschool and youth development (AYD) programs:

AYD programs don’t have the right to search youth, but can use school administrators if there is a suspicion.  Also, it is always ok to ask permission to search a bag or person.  Since youth are required to attend school there are certain exceptions afforded school administrators.  Hopefully, youth want to be in AYD programs so this won’t be a significant an issue.

Thanks to Nicholas for his outstanding service as Education Policy intern. Learn more about him in his introduction blog post.

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