School Officials and Police Liason Officers Generally Need Reasonable Grounds to Search Students on School Property.

School districts have a responsibility to maintain a reasonably safe and orderly learning environment. The growing number of violent incidents and dangerous weapons in schools has made this task difficult. School officials are simply not trained or equipped to deal with all the potentially dangerous situations created by students. Therefore, many schools now utilize the services of a police liaison officer. These officers can be extremely helpful in investigating serious forms of student misconduct and in maintaining order in the schools. However, schools need to be aware of the issues that arise when a police liaison officer participates in the search of a student on school property.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 11, of the Wisconsin Constitution both prohibit “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In the 1985 case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court held that although the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials, school officials do not need to obtain a search warrant or even have probable cause to search a student on school property. Instead, school officials are subject to the slightly lower “reasonable grounds” standard. Under this standard, a search by a school official will be upheld if it is reasonable at its inception and in its scope.

A search is reasonable at its inception if–before conducting the search–the school official has reasonable grounds to believe that the search will yield evidence that the student is in violation of the law or a school rule. A search is reasonable in its scope if the measures used to search the student are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and are not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the suspected infraction.

The facts in T.L.O. are illustrative. A teacher witnessed a student smoking in a school lavatory in violation of school policy. The teacher reported the incident to an assistant principal. Shortly thereafter, the assistant principal searched the student’s purse for cigarettes. The search revealed cigarettes, marijuana, and evidence implicating the student in drug dealing. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the search was reasonable at its inception and in its scope, because a teacher saw the student smoking in violation of school rules, the student denied doing so, and the search of her purse was reasonably related to the objective of finding cigarettes. The Court expressly stated, however, that it was not deciding the legality of searches conducted by school officials in conjunction with or at the request of a law enforcement agency.

In a recent case titled In the Interest of Angelia D.B., 546 N.W.2d 682 (Wis. 1997), the Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified when a school liaison officer may search a student on school property. In Angelia D.B., a high school student informed the assistant principal that earlier that day he had observed a knife in the backpack of a student named Angelia. The informant also indicated that Angelia might have access to a gun. The assistant principal called the school’s police liaison officer. The officer personally interviewed the informant, who repeated what he had observed.

Along with the dean of students, the liaison officer went to Angelia’s classroom and escorted her into the hallway. There, the officer identified himself and informed Angelia that he had received information that she may be carrying a knife or a gun. The officer then conducted a brief pat down search of Angelia’s jacket and pants and instructed Angelia to open her backpack. No weapons were discovered. Meanwhile, the dean of students searched Angelia’s locker and did not find any weapons. The police liaison officer then took Angelia to his office. After Angelia denied having any weapons, the officer informed her that he was going to search further. Angelia removed her jacket for the officer. When he did not find a weapon in her jacket, he lifted up the bottom of her shirt just high enough to reveal her waistband. The officer observed two inches of a brown knife handle tucked in her waistband. After the officer removed the nine-inch knife, which was locked in the open position, he placed Angelia under arrest.

The State filed a juvenile delinquency petition charging Angelia with carrying a concealed weapon. Angelia sought to suppress the knife as evidence on the ground that the search was highly intrusive and that the liaison officer lacked the probable cause necessary to search her. The circuit court agreed and ruled that the knife and all other evidence obtained from Angelia would be excluded at trial. The State appealed the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Reversing the circuit court’s decision, the supreme court concluded that the school liaison officer did not need probable cause to search Angelia. If an outside police officer initiates a search or if school officials act at the request of a law enforcement agency, then probable cause is needed to search a student on school property. However, the court held that if a school official initiates a search, or if a school liaison officer conducts a search at the request of and in conjunction with a school official, the “reasonable grounds” standard applies. Again, under this standard a search will be upheld if it is reasonable at its inception and in its scope.

In reaching its decision in Angelia D.B., the supreme court emphasized that school teachers and officials generally are not trained in proper pat down procedures or in disarming students with weapons. The court, therefore, opined that it could be hazardous to encourage school officials to handle such situations on their own, rather than requesting assistance from trained police personnel. Accordingly, the court concluded that when school officials are faced with a potentially dangerous situation which is beyond their expertise and training, they may seek the assistance of trained law enforcement officials without losing the protections afforded by the reasonable grounds standard.

Applying these rules to the facts before it, the supreme court concluded that the school liaison officer had reasonable grounds to suspect that Angelia possessed a knife in violation of state law and school rules. School officials and school liaison officers are entitled to rely on information provided by a student, unless they know or should know that the student informant may be untrustworthy. Here, there was no evidence that the student informant was untrustworthy. Therefore, the search was justified at its inception.

The supreme court also concluded that the scope of the search was reasonable in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. The court noted that the officer limited his search only to areas where Angelia could have reasonably concealed a weapon, and he lifted her shirt only high enough to observe her waistline. The court found that this was a “relatively minor intrusion when compared to the nature of the infraction–possession of a dangerous weapon on school grounds.”

School officials should be aware of the consequences for searching a student or requesting that a school liaison officer search a student when the school official lacks reasonable grounds to believe that the student is in violation of the law or a school rule. Such a search is unconstitutional. As mentioned above, any evidence obtained during an unconstitutional search may be excluded during criminal proceedings. In addition, although other jurisdictions have held that the exclusionary rule does not apply to expulsion proceedings, see Thompson v. Carthage School District, 87 F.3d 979, 981 (8th Cir. 1996), in Wisconsin it is unclear whether illegally seized evidence may be used to expel or otherwise discipline a student. Finally, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, students who are subjected to an unconstitutional search by school officials may sue the school district and the officials who conducted the search for violating their civil rights. Thus, school officials who conduct an illegal search, or ask a school liaison officer to perform such a search, may incur liability for compensatory damages and the student’s attorney fees.

In conclusion, school officials may search a student or ask a school liaison officer to search a student on school property whenever reasonable grounds exist to believe the student is in violation of the law or a school rule. Likewise, a school liaison officer acting at the request of or in conjunction with a school official may search a student on school property if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe the student is in violation of the law or a school rule. Regardless of who performs the search, the scope of the search must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and must not be excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. As long as the search is reasonable at its inception and in its scope, school officials will avoid liability and preserve the right to use evidence obtained from the search in school discipline and state criminal proceedings.

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Terrence Foy

About Terrence Foy

Terrance Foy is a shareholder of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A. and represents public employers in all aspects of labor and employment law, with an emphasis on collective bargaining, grievance and interest arbitration, and issues of employee discipline and discharge. Mr. Foy also provides legal advice and representation to counties and other municipal clients regarding reductions in force, the FLSA and discrimination claims. He has represented numerous public sector entities, including counties, cities and school districts, in civil litigation and administrative proceedings involving the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, data privacy laws, claims of discrimination, land use, competitive bid law and other aspects of public sector and municipal law. Mr. Foy received his B.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received his law degree from Hamline University School of Law. He is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, State Bar of Wisconsin, National Public Employer Labor Relations Association and the Minnesota Public Employer Labor Relations Association.