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The 4th Amendment in the Classroom & in the Hallway

by Nancy Reese, CCAP Staff Attorney

The Supreme Court Addresses the Detention of Students in Public Schools

What do public school students on school grounds have in common with adult parolees and minor and adult probationers? They may be detained by school personnel without a showing of reasonable suspicion of commission of a crime or school rule-breaking. According to the California Supreme Court, a student may be detained even by a school security officer, as long as the detention is not arbitrary, capricious, or for the purpose of harassment. This was the court’s holding in In re Randy G. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 556.

In Randy G. a campus security officer at a public high school saw Randy and a friend during the passing time between classes in an area of campus students were not allowed to congregate. Randy “fixed his pocket very nervously” when he saw her. Worthy told the students to go to class. She followed them and continued to watch Randy because he was acting “very paranoid and nervous.” Worthy called for another security guard and they went to Randy’s classroom to question him further. In the hallway, officer Worthy asked Randy if he had anything on him, and he replied “no.” He repeated his denial when asked the question again. She asked for and received consent to search his bag. The other officer asked for and received consent to do a pat search. The search revealed a knife with a locking blade in the minor’s left pocket, which led to a finding of a violation of Penal Code section 626.10, subdivision (a), possession of a knife with a locking blade on school grounds.

The court began its analysis with a discussion of whether a detention had occurred in the first place. Students are required by law to attend school, and by statute, principals, teachers, and other school personnel may exercise the same degree of physical control over a pupil that a parent could, in order to maintain order, safety, and a learning environment. Moreover, encounters on school grounds between students and school personnel are “constant and much more varied than those on the street between citizens and law enforcement officers.” Noting that a public-school student is deprived of liberty to some extent as soon as the school grounds are entered, the court questioned whether taking a student from a classroom to a hallway would qualify as a detention under traditional Fourth Amendment analysis. However, if this encounter was not a detention, the sole remaining constitutional barrier to arbitrary action by school personnel would be a substantive due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. The state high court noted that the federal high court has been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process and the court refused to do so here.

Second, in the analogous Fourth Amendment framework of parole and probation searches, a student may still challenge the conduct of school officials as arbitrary, capricious, or harassing.

The court next turned its attention to the concept that the public schools have “special needs” which call for the modification of the usual rules of constitutionally reasonable searches. The court reasoned that public education is perhaps the most important function of local government. The court distinguished New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325 [permitting the search of an on-campus minor student’s person upon showing that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the search would uncover evidence of violation of law or school rules; probable cause for search not required] and Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton (1995) 515 U.S. 646 [approving drug testing of student athletes, even in the absence of any individualized suspicion of drug use]. Both of these cases involved searches, whereas Randy was simply seized, which is generally a less intrusive experience than a search. The special needs of the school setting justify a lesser standard. The broad authority of school administrators over student behavior, school safety, and the learning environment requires that school officials have the power to stop a minor student in order to ask questions or conduct an investigation, even in the absence of reasonable suspicion, so long as such authority is not exercised in an arbitrary, capricious, or harassing manner.

Finally, the court rejected the argument that this lesser standard should apply only to the conduct of school teachers and administrators, and that school security officers should be held to a higher standard. The court felt it was reasonable to delegate the authority of school personnel to security officers, and that to distinguish the power to
detain based on job title alone would define the extent of a student’s rights by the
happenstance of the status of the employee who chose to detain, rather than by the nature of the asserted infringement.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Werdegar states that the majority opinion does not foreclose the possibility that a teacher or school official may, in an appropriate setting, subject a minor student to a detention, even though it was unnecessary to make such a determination in Randy’s case.

Editor’s note: Recently decided cases from both the U.S. and California Supreme Court are collected in a separate article – go to High Court Activity.