Both for historical and practical reasons, the law recognizes that students attending public schools simply cannot have the same Fourth Amendment rights as they would when they are at home or out on the street.
This is so even though school officials and, especially, school resource officers, are government actors who must respect the Constitution. People have simply recognized that Mobile, Alabama, schools need some flexibility to enforce their rules and protect and provide for the students in their care. They also need to be able to ensure that the school is a safe and effective place to learn.
However, this does not mean that students at school have no privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment whatsoever. School officials, for instance, cannot search students for no reason at all or, worse, just because the student has a reputation of being a troublemaker.
What school officials can and cannot do in the way of searching a student and his or her belongings depends heavily on the surrounding facts and circumstances, so any detailed questions should be directed to an experienced attorney.
However, in general, school officials need what is called reasonable suspicion that a student is breaking the law, or even a school rule, in order to do a search. The search does not require a warrant, but it does have to be limited to the purpose of confirming or clearing up the school officials’ suspicion.
In the present environment, it is an unfortunate reality that many young people may get accused, rightly or wrongly, of drug crimes based on a search by people connected with the public schools. Students and their parents should remember that they do have rights in these situations.