The protection of the Fourth Amendment of the United States against unreasonable searches and seizures did not traditionally apply to searches of students in schools because school officials are not law enforcement officials and because they are given permission to act on behalf of the students' parents while the students are in school. The law in this area changed in 1985 when the United States Supreme Court held that school officials act as representatives of a state when they conduct searches and that the Fourth Amendment applies to searches by the school officials on school property.
The basic requirement for a search of a student is the reasonableness of the search. If the school officials have a reasonable belief that the search will produce evidence that the student has violated any rules of the school, the officials may search the student. The officials may detain the student, they may conduct a "pat-down" search of the student's clothing, and they may search the student's locker or may use drug-sniffing dogs to search the locker. All the school officials need to show is that they had a reasonable belief that the evidence of the violation of the rule would be found by the search.
Factors which determine whether the search is reasonable include the student's expectation of privacy in the property that is searched, the student's age and sex, and the type of search that is performed on the student.
Because school officials have a need to maintain order, they do not need to obtain a search warrant prior to searching a student who is under their control and they do not need to establish that they had probable cause for the search.
When law enforcement officers are employed by schools to enforce the rules of the school, the law enforcement officers must have probable cause to conduct a search of a student. However, if the law enforcement officers are only minimally involved in the search and school officials actually conduct the search, the search need only be reasonable. Probable cause does not apply to the search.
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