As a high schooler and possibly a minor, you should know your rights when at school. This article will discuss if your school can search your backpack.
Students are under school staff supervision for seven hours a day, five days a week. Within that time, they are told to listen to teachers and authority figures, and at times, they do so blindly.
Nevertheless, there is a clear line between respecting authority and following it blindly. Thus, children and teens of all ages should be aware of their rights, even when at school.
Disclaimer: This article holds no legal jurisdiction and is based solely on research. Be aware that some rights might be restricted if any documents were signed or the student attends a private school in which additional rules are established.
Can your school search you?
In some ways, yes. While in others, no. It depends on the situation and might come down to reasonable suspicion and evidence. Nevertheless, schools can also hold “random searches” that might not be so random at the end of the day.
Below we will go into further detail about what your school can and can’t search for and more information on how to protect yourself and your rights while in class.
Can your school search your backpack?
Your school can search your backpack, but only if it has “Reasonable Suspicion.” They should not be looking inside your personal items if they do not.
Keep in mind that the majority of searches are for the student’s safety. For instance, after the Parkland school shooting took place in Florida, students of that school were required to wear see-through backpacks to reinforce safety.
Many found this to be inconsiderate and an invasion of privacy. Yet, it did come from a place of care and safety to implement that rule. Thus, remember that these searches are meant to keep you and the ones around you safe.
It is crucial to know what you must oblige for and what you must make clear is your right and stand your ground respectfully. For instance, you have the right to refuse a search.
If asked to go through a backpack search, you do have the right to deny it. Nevertheless, avoid using any physical force to stop it from happening, and make it clear that you do not grant permission for a search.
Random Searches and More
At certain schools, there are times you may witness or be selected for a random search. However, some schools also perform random drug testing, especially with students that participate in school sports.
Keep an eye out to make sure you are not a target in any way. Since it is a random search, they should have a specific method of picking students. Whether it is every six students or through other random forms such as name drawing.
Target on Your Back
If teachers or administrators believe you have something illegal or against school policy, such as drugs or a weapon, they might ask you to empty your pockets and want to search your backpack.
However, just because they think you do, does not mean they have the right to proceed and go through your personal items. This brings up an important point.
Is Consent Necessary?
In some scenarios, no. Though no staff member should ever forcefully touch a student, pat them down, or do any strip-searching, they do not need consent to search their items if there is “reasonable suspicion” to do so.
Defining “reasonable suspicion.”
This is a bit of a gray area and can be hard to define as only one thing. However, for the suspicion to be reasonable, it cannot come from a hunch or rumor overheard by a teacher or just based purely on curiosity.
However, if another student is caught with drugs and is asked who sold it to them, school officials now have “reasonable suspicion” to search said student. Furthermore, if staff sees something in the student’s bag without touching it, then it can be a good enough reason to have a search.
For instance, if a teacher is walking around the classroom and sees a gun or weapon inside a student’s open backpack, they might alert school officials about the matter, and in this case, your school can search your backpack.
Is My Locker Fair Game?
Not all students have lockers, but the ones that do, often have them locked for obvious reasons. Which makes one question whether schools have the right to look through your locker.
Two cases apply here. If your locker, under the school guidelines and student handbook, is considered the school’s property, then they hold the right to search your locker at any time.
Nevertheless, if your locker is your personal property, as defined by the school, they would need some sort of “reasonable suspicion” to proceed with the search.
When Police Are Involved
It might be more intimidating for students when police officers show up. Yet, your rights still remain the exact same. Regardless of who will be conducting the search, they need reasonable suspicion or your verbal consent to do so. Thus, you have the right to deny consent to police officers too.
Two types of metal detectors come to mind in this scenario. The first is the one like the ones you see at the airport, which would be placed at the school’s entrance. This would mean all students would have to pass through them upon entrance.
In that case, a metal detector would be used for anyone entering the building and is used as a safety precaution instead of a suspicion. The second kind is the hand-held metal detector. Which would require the student to have done something that brings up “reasonable suspicion” in order to be searched.
Drug Sniffing Dogs
Police dogs can also be brought in from time to time to conduct searches. Throughout my high school career, I’ve only experienced this once. My class was randomly selected to place our bags on the hallway floor and stand back as the police walked the dogs up and down to sniff our belongings.
This can be a routine check, and all students should comply. Especially since they are not directly opening and going through your backpack. Keep in mind that if the drug-sniffing dog signals the cop, that could be used as reasonable suspicion to then perform a search.
Your Voice Matters
If you feel uncomfortable, speak up. In no circumstance should the police or school staff physically force or touch you during a search, especially if you are a minor.
Of course, some instances might be particular to the gravity of the situation. If a student pulls out a knife, the police can now pat them down as a safety precaution, and it is likely they will arrest them as well.
However, if you are in a situation where you feel things are escalating, remember to protect yourself. You may request for your parent or legal guardian to be called, pull out your phone to record, or even ask if a teacher or counselor you trust can be with you during this time.
Court And Evidence
On that note, it is vital to record what is happening. If you, for any reason, end up in court, you can have video footage of what happened.
Furthermore, keep in mind that if evidence was found during an illegal/ non-consensual search, it could not be used against you in court. But many schools will use it to validate disciplinary punishments such as suspensions and detentions.
In short, yes, your school can search your backpack. However, they must have a reason as to why, and that should meet the “reasonable suspicion” criteria. Meaning it can’t be just because they want to search you or based on a hunch or rumor.
Students must know and exercise their voices actively. This also means that if you, as a third party, see something, you should say something. Being in school and among school officials does not mean students don’t have rights.