Sides split when it comes to school privacy

Published 8:33 pm Saturday, January 3, 2009

Dear Lawyer Mark: I am a high school student who is interested in going to law school some day. I also have an interest in law enforcement. I have a question about school privacy.

I have always believed we have a right to privacy in school but there are things that make me wonder whether this is true.

For example, sometimes a police officer comes to the school with a “drug-sniffing” dog and walks by all the lockers. Don’t they need some kind of probable cause for this? — Confused in Coal Grove

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Dear Confused: Your question raises a serious issue. There are several different arguments concerning the right of privacy and the Fourth Amendment “right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures” in the schoolhouse setting. Some

people argue that there is a “lesser expectation of privacy” in the school and that the school setting requires an easing of constitutional restrictions so that teachers can maintain order and discipline without resorting to law enforcement. On the other hand, there is another argument that students should be treated the same, i.e., the same constitutional protection should be given to all citizens, regardless of their age and educational status. At this time, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ohio Supreme Court take the view that there is a reduced right to privacy in the schoolhouse.

How does this affect searches in the schools? It means that school authorities may perform warrantless searches in the schools.

For example, a school official may conduct a warrantless search of a student’s person, bags and locker, if it is reasonable under the circumstances. Such a search is not permissible for an adult without any suspicion that a crime has been committed or that the person is carrying contraband.

Your question deals specifically with canine searches. Believe it or not, the courts have held that a “sniff” by a police canine is not a search and this is not subject to constitutional privacy safeguards.

This means no warrant is required for a drug dog to be used. In fact, reasonable suspicion is not required. The rule applies to both minors and adults. So the answer to your question is, the officers do not need to have probable cause to have a dog sniff the lockers. School officials are free to invite law enforcement to perform this type of search in the schools.

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK: By nature all men are alike but by education become different— old proverb.

It’s The Law is written by attorney Mark K. McCown in response to legal questions received by him. If you have a question, please forward it to Mark K. McCown, 311 Park Avenue, Ironton, Ohio 45638, or e-mail it to him at The right to condense and/or edit all questions is reserved.