On Throwback Thursday here at the Daily Dawg we like to honor those Golden Oldie cases that all school administrators should know about. And this leads us to the legendary Mr. Choplick. Has there ever been a better name for a middle school assistant principal than “Mr. Choplick”? That’s the name of the guy who reached into the purse of a girl known to history as T.L.O. Mr. Choplick did not find what he was looking for. He was looking for cigarettes. The report was that some of the girls had been smoking in the bathroom. He did not find cigarettes, though. Instead, he found evidence of drug dealing.
Thus the student discipline case morphed into a criminal matter and the lawyer for T.L.O. sought to suppress the evidence of what was in the girl’s purse. The argument was that Mr. Choplick had conducted an illegal search in violation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is how a day that began with girls smoking in the bathroom led to our Golden Oldie on student searches, New Jersey v. T.L.O.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument, but in doing so the Court held, for the first time, that the 4th Amendment applies not only to the police, but also to school officials. However, the Court created a sort of spectrum for 4th Amendment analysis.
On one end of the spectrum you have the parents. They can search their child’s belongings as long as their courage holds out. The 4th Amendment does not apply to the parents, or to any other private parties. The police are on the other end of the spectrum. To conduct a search, the gendarmes need probable cause or a search warrant. The Court then put school officials in the middle of that spectrum. Yes, the 4th Amendment applies—but assistant principals do not have to get a warrant or satisfy the stringent standards of “probable cause.” Instead, the standard is “reasonableness” and “reasonable suspicion.”
The Court said that the reasonableness of a search in the school setting would be governed by two questions: was it “justified at the inception?” And was it “reasonable in scope?” Since the 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O. lower courts have applied those two standards to all manner of situations from magnetometers to strip searches.
Now that we are in the 21st Century the big issue is the cell phone. Is it a “search” to poke around on a student’s cell phone? Absolutely it is. So teachers, who do not have as much legal training as administrators have, need to know this. We think that a search should always be preceded by a bit of inner questioning. Ask yourself: what do I think I will find? And then ask: why do I think I might find it where I am looking? Those two questions can guide you toward conducting searches only when “justified at the inception” and “reasonable in scope.”
DAWG BONE: NEW JERSEY v. T.L.O.—THE GOLDEN OLDIE ON STUDENT SEARCHES
File this one under: 4TH AMENDMENT
TOMORROW: PRINCIPALS HEAED TO AUSTIN EN MASSE!