School administrators are responsible for the safety of their students, and it’s generally accepted that they can use reasonable means to keep the school safe and discipline those who break the rules. As with most things, however, there is a line between what’s reasonable and what’s not. A recent news article reports that the parent of a 13-year-old is suing the Round Lake school district for strip-searching her child. It brings up the question of how far is too far.
Strip searching a student, and doing so without notifying the parents, certainly crosses the line in my opinion. It goes too far. School teachers and administrators do assume some of the roles of parents and police when students are in their building, but the fact is, they are not the police and they are not the parents.
Student privacy rights at school are somewhat controversial. Public school districts and their employees are essentially the government, which makes it a civil rights issue – unreasonable searches and seizures are a violation of constitutional privacy rights. However, the Supreme Court has said that students have a lesser expectation of privacy when they’re at school. So the law has allowed some leeway, with the idea that administrators and teachers need to have control over their student body.
Some states, including Illinois, have specific laws on the topic. Illinois law says that student property can be searched (lockers, purses, backpacks, etc.) for pretty much any reason and without student consent. The law even extends to students’ cars that are parked on school property. The same rationale applies to mandatory drug testing of athletes and other students. No search warrants are required.
Strip searches, however, are a different story. While there isn’t a law that specifically says strip searches cannot happen, many courts have ruled that strip searches are a violation of a student’s rights. If the school has serious concerns that something dangerous is being hidden under a student’s clothes, they should call the police. The parents should be notified. There are very few instances where a strip search of a student is going to be justified as usually other options are available that are less invasive.
The parent in the Round Lake case is suing for $1.2 million, claiming her son was emotionally distressed by the illegal search he had to endure. I don’t have enough facts to say what this case will settle for, but if true the student deserves something and it needs to be enough to deter the school from this type of behavior in the future.