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Debate: School searches of student lockers

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Do schools have the right to search students’ lockers?

Background and context

This is a debate about privacy, and the extent to which the state can invade the private life of its citizens. Although it may seem unimportant, the school locker is usually the only private space available to a student in the communal environment of the school, and so it focuses many of the issues involved in privacy debates.
This is usually thought of as an American issue, but it could apply in any country and the arguments could also be transferred from school lockers to desks and lockers in the adult workplace. The rights to privacy claimed in this debate find expression in two key documents: Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." 4th Amendment to the US Constitution: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." In the USA this became an issue at the highest level with the 1980 Supreme Court case, New Jersey v T.L.O. The law differs from state to state as to whether reasonable suspicion is required before an individual student’s locker can be searched, or whether blanket/random searches can be carried out.

Contents

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Crime: Are locker-search important in fighting student crime?

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Yes

  • Locker searches reduce drugs and weapons in schools, which is in the interests of all students. The best way to ensure that such contraband items are found and removed is for the school authorities periodically to search a random selection of student lockers. Even if there is a privacy issue, students yield that minor right in return for the wider benefit of safety.
  • Schools must protect against the use of lockers in serious crimes. In addition to general searches of lockers, particular individuals are often suspected of activity, often quite serious, that mean teachers need to inspect their property. Without the ability to inspect lockers, young criminals will know that they can hide forbidden things there without fear. On the other hand, the possibility of a search means that students will think twice before bringing things in to school. Students may indeed find other hiding places – but this doesn’t mean that they should be given total control over the most obvious hiding place in school. Other safety techniques – such as metal detectors, sniffer dogs, security guards – may be useful too, but they are not mutually exclusive to locker searches. All these things can be used in addition to, not instead of, locker searches – and indeed, a combination of all of them may yield the most secure results.


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No

  • Student locker searches lack "probable cause". Students should not to be considered criminal suspects without probable cause. And, yet, school searches of lockers often lack probable cause. In the USA, it is therefore contrary to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Elsewhere it is covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' guarantee against "arbitrary interference with… privacy".
  • Medal detectors are a better approach than locker searches. It is obvious that if students are faced with the prospect of locker searches, they will just find another hiding place, or keep things on their person. The thrust of policy should not be about finding things once they are in school – it should be about stopping them getting there in the first place. Metal detectors, for example, are fair – because they check everyone (rather than singling people out) without intruding on them. Students who are singled out for searches are effectively and publicly accused of a crime. Occasionally, something incriminating may be found; almost always it won't be, but any bond of trust between school/teacher and student will be broken, and disaffection is likely to follow.


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Privacy: Do searches of student-lockers avoid privacy concerns?

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Yes

  • Lockers are school property and, therefore, subject to any school searches: Students are merely allowed to use lockers as they do with sports equipment, library books, school computers, etc. Lockers can be taken back without notice, for example if they are vandalised or become smelly with rotting food. Students are or should be told that schools have the right to search their lockers - it is a part of being in a school community where you have to accept its rules and responsibilities.
  • Schools are responsible for student activities so must be able to search lockers. This responsibility is placed upon schools because the students in their charge are minors - children in the eyes of the law - who need more protection than adults. This same legal status also explains why constitutional rights to privacy, etc. cannot be applied absolutely to school students. Schools' duty of care applies both morally and legally – and they may be open to lawsuits if they don't take reasonable measures to prevent other students from bringing drugs or weapons into school, or to recover stolen property. In both these cases, searching lockers is an obvious and reasonable response to a threat to student welfare.


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No

  • Schools searching lockers is an invasion of privacy. Schools should not be able to search students' lockers unless someone has a bad school record and has been suspected of doing something wrong. A lot of schools search students' lockers for a sense of power...for no reason and they don't have the right to do it.


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Abuse: Can concerns over teacher abuse of locker-searching power be reduced?

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Yes

  • We must trust teachers to perform locker-searches responsibly. Even if the policy sees a small minority misuse the search power, the cost is outweighed by the benefit of greater security and disincentive to smuggle contraband such as drugs and weapons in to school.


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No

  • Many belongings aren’t illegal but are nevertheless potentially the source of embarrassment. For example love letters, pornography, contraceptives, or medicines. Teachers can abuse this power to inflict embarrassment on students they dislike, or may allow it to influence negatively their attitude to and treatment of the student concerned.
  • Denying students a locker increases dangerous feelings of resentment and alienation. A sense of alienation and isolation in the school environment has been at the forefront of the rise of psychological problems amongst students – resulting in tragedies like Columbine. Denying students the security of a secure anchor in this environment, a known reference point without risk of removal or meddling, means they are more likely to be adrift and insecure.
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Compelling interest? Is the problem compelling, making searches a compelling interest?

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Yes

  • The magnitude of the problem makes locker-searches a compelling interest. In the USA, every school day, at least 100,000 students bring guns to school; 160,000 students skip classes because they fear physical harm; 40 students are hurt or killed by firearms; 6,250 teachers are threatened with bodily injury; 260 teachers are physically assaulted. Is searching someone’s locker really a step too far in trying to stop this?


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No

  • There’s no doubt that there are grave problems in schools. but we should send a message to children that we trust them – making them feel like adults. Always suspecting them of something widens the gulf between the generations that has caused so much harm in society. In any case, how often are lockers directly implicated in the crimes listed opposite? Most weapons are hidden on the person, and lockers are hardly involved in assaults on teachers.
  • Students more likely to carry weapons than keep in locker. Why would students put their weapons in their lockers? Wouldn't they just keep them on their person? For this reason, it doesn't seem that locker-searches has much solvency for the problem of students bringing weapons into school; it looks in the wrong place.
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Resistance: Won't students rebel against their lockers being inspected?

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Pro

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Con

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Pro/con resources

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Yes

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No

See also

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