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Can the school search our lockers and backpacks to look for drugs? Can they search our lockers and backpacks for no reason?

Question | Privacy
My school conducts random drug searches through our lockers all the time. They even bring in police sniffing dogs, and sometimes the dogs sniff our backpacks too. Some students do have drugs in their lockers. I don’t have drugs, but I have my Proactiv zit cream in my locker and I really don’t want anyone to see it, let alone my teachers and principal. Can the school search our lockers and backpacks to look for drugs? Can they search our lockers and backpacks for no reason?
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Students have a privacy right in their personal belongings, such as backpacks, and school officials must have “reasonable suspicion” before searching a student’s items. Lockers, on the other hand, are owned by the school, so the school can search those without having “reasonable suspicion.” So you better not have any contraband in your locker, like joints. To be safe, don’t keep it in your backpack or car either. Don’t bring it anywhere near your school!

Students have privacy rights while in school, but these privacy rights are limited compared to the privacy rights people have outside of schools. This means that although you do have rights as a student, your school has the power to limit them. So if you have drugs, drug paraphernalia, or really anything embarrassing that you don’t want your school principal to see, like zit cream or condoms, do NOT keep it in your locker.

In the world outside of schools, searches of personal property typically cannot be conducted unless law enforcement has a search warrant. To get a search warrant, police officers have to convince a judge that they have a good reason to search someone’s house or belongings. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures to protect their privacy interests in their homes and personal belongings. Typically, to constitute a “reasonable” search under the law, law enforcement needs a warrant before conducting the search.

But courts have decided that students are not subject to the full privacy protections that the Fourth Amendment guarantees because school authorities do not need a warrant to search a student’s belongings—they only need “reasonable suspicion” of injury or wrongdoing. This means that a school official cannot just randomly stop a student in the hall and force that student to hand over their backpack for a search. That student must have given the school a legitimate reason for searching the backpack, such as potentially having a weapon or illegal drugs in the backpack.

On the other hand, items such as lockers and other school-owned property that your school lets you use, like iPads or computers, are not subject to that “reasonable suspicion” requirement. Because these items belong to your school and you are simply using them rather than owning them, the school has every right to search these items. So if you happen to have naked pictures of yourself, pictures of you drinking alcohol, or anything you could possibly get in trouble for on school-owned technology, delete that information from the device! Do not try to argue that the school doesn’t have the authority to search your device because you’re probably going to lose. There are far fewer restrictions on school-owned property being searched than student-owned property.

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In the real world (that is, outside of your school), law enforcement absolutely needs a warrant to search anyone’s personal belongings. Thank you, Fourth Amendment! However, while in school, students aren’t guaranteed all the protections that the Constitution gives us. One of these protections that is limited is the right to privacy. So schools are not required to get a warrant before searching a student’s belongings.

But don’t fret. Even though they don’t have to obtain a warrant, school officials still can’t search your things for no reason. School officials need “reasonable suspicion” before searching your things, and there is a two-part test that determines the reasonableness of the search. For the search to be reasonable, the school needs to show (1) the search was “justified at inception” and (2) the search was reasonable in regard to the circumstances that triggered the search. To be “justified at inception,” or in other words, justified from the start of the search, the school has to believe that the search will result in showing that the student violated, or is violating, the law or school rules. To meet the second requirement, the scope of the search needs to be reasonable and not excessively intrusive in light of the age of the student, the sex of the student, the nature of the alleged infraction, and the objective of the search. For example, a school official may have reason to believe that a student under the age of 18 just smoked a cigarette in the bathroom if that student recently posted selfies smoking or holding a pack of cigarettes in the school bathroom on social media. In this situation, the school official likely can search the backpack because there is legitimate reason to believe that the student has a pack of cigarettes in the backpack.

Does that mean school officials can search all of my things like my backpack, jacket, or purse?

When it comes to your personal belongings, school officials have less of a right to search those items than something like a school-owned locker. Even though it is limited, students do have a privacy interest in their personal belongings at school, and this interest must be balanced against the school’s interest in maintaining safety and discipline. Remember, at the end of the day, you’re at school to learn, and if something is interfering with your education, schools have a right to create a safe educational environment even if that means the students’ rights are slightly interfered with.

We already said that schools need reasonable suspicion to search your belongings, so what would that look like? Let’s say a few students have complained to the principal that you have been selling marijuana out of your backpack by the boys’ bathroom. If the principal catches you with your backpack outside of the bathroom waiting during a class period, he probably has enough reasonable suspicion to search your backpack. The principal would pass that two-part test requiring reasonable suspicion because the search was justified from the beginning (the principal had a legitimate reason to believe that you were engaging in illegal drug sales) and the search was reasonable because he only searched your backpack, where the marijuana supposedly was kept.

This also applies to searches of cell phones. The school must have reasonable suspicion that, while at school, a student was using their phone to threaten the safety of another person, was engaging in illegal activity on the phone, or using the phone to violate a school policy. Then, the school would probably have the reasonable suspicion to search through certain information on the phone. If you want a more in-depth analysis of this issue, be sure to check out our Q&A regarding the searches of student cell phones.

So school officials need a legitimate reason to search my personal belongings. What about school-owned property like lockers or computers?

School officials have a lot more power when it comes to searching school-owned property. In regard to lockers, students simply occupy their lockers for the school year, but the school still owns the lockers. This rule is the reason that schools do not violate students’ privacy rights when they conduct random police searches using sniffing dogs. On top of the reason that schools have an interest in keeping drugs out, they also aren’t really violating your privacy rights by searching their own property. It’s kind of like when your mom searches your underwear drawer for something you’re hiding from her in the dresser that she bought, which is in the house that she owns. Your mom can absolutely search your underwear drawer (no matter how embarrassing that is) just like how schools can search your lockers. Schools have a duty to monitor the lockers that students temporarily occupy, especially if something dangerous or illegal is being kept in the locker. So even though it is embarrassing that you have zit cream in your locker, your embarrassment is not going to prevent the school administration from searching your locker. We suggest keeping personal items that are not illegal, such as tampons, condoms, birth control medications, etc., in a purse or backpack that is a little more personal than a locker.

Similarly, school authorities also have much less restrictions on searching school-owned computers and technology that they may let you borrow, as opposed to your technology that you own. Schools can't randomly search your phone that you or your parents pay for, but that iPad that the school lets you borrow to do your homework? Yeah, they probably can search that. Now, we would hope that the school has a good reason before searching the technology that they let you borrow, but sometimes, they may conduct random searches, just as they do with lockers. Just to be safe, think about what you’re searching or storing on school-owned technology. If you wouldn’t want your parents or guardians to see certain information, you probably shouldn’t be keeping it on or in a school-owned item. So delete those things from your school-owned technology and make sure everything you’re using school-owned technology for is G rated.

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