Search Policy May Hinder Students' Rights

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    Thu, 13 Jul 2006
    The Chelsea Standard

    Recent Court Settlement Could Impact School Policies On Searches

    Searches of student lockers and drug sniffing dogs have become commonplace at high schools throughout the state. At Chelsea High School, canine searches are typically conducted at least once a year with coordination with local police agencies.

    But last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Detroit Public Schools agreed to settle a lawsuit that was filed after the school district performed schoolwide searches of students. The lawsuit was filed in response to Detroit Public Schools policy that allows periodic police "sweeps" without notice in intermediate and high schools. As a result of the settlement, the school district's policy has been changed.

    Dave Killips, superintendent at Chelsea School District, does not expect the court settlement to have an impact on local search policies, which restrict the search of students' property to ensure their rights are not violated.

    "We have to have suspicion. The courts make it pretty clear and they are generally in support of the school districts as long as there is reasonable suspicion," Killips said.

    Searches, according to the district's bylaws and policies, are generally restricted to the district's property, which includes lockers, and conducted only when there is reasonable suspicion.

    "School authorities will respect a student's right of privacy in their person and their property. However, lockers are the property of the school district and a student's locker or other possessions may be searched in the event reasonable suspicion dictates that the administration takes such action," the policy states.

    "In addition, students who drive to school and park on school district property agree to have their vehicles searched by administrators who have reasonable suspicion that the student's vehicle contains drugs, weapons, or other items not permissible in school or on school district property."

    Killips said the district typically coordinates with the Chelsea Police Department to conduct canine searches throughout the school year. The results of a canine search could provide reasonable suspicion to conduct a search of student property.

    "We usually do it a couple times a year. We usually work very closely with the police department," Killips said.

    A canine search was conducted at Chelsea High School and Beach Middle School last fall.

    During the searches, Killips said, schools are put on lock-down and students typically remain in their classrooms.

    Killips emphasized that searches of student property are only conducted when an individual is suspected.

    But how closely administrators are following the district's policy of student searches remains to be seen. Students at Beach Middle School reported that the school conducted a search of female students' purses as they arrived on the last day of school, apparently to make sure students weren't bringing cans of shaving cream and other items to school on the last day.

    When questioned on the issue, Killips appeared to be unaware of the student search.

    "The principal may have done this as a precautionary method," he said.

    Andrew Ingall, principal at Beach Middle School, could not be reached for comment.

    Whether the settlement between Detroit Public Schools and the ACLU of Michigan will impact other school districts is still largely unknown.

    Under the negotiated policy changes, school officials may no longer search students' clothing, backpacks, cars or other items unless they have reasonable suspicion that the student violated school rules and the search will result in evidence of the violation.

    The lawsuit was filed in 2004 after the entire student body of Detroit's Mumford High School underwent a mass search on Feb. 18, 2004. At the time of the search, which was conducted under the supervision of Detroit Police and the school board's public safety officers, students were ushered into the school, lined up against the walls, and marched to the end of the hall where they were searched after going through metal detectors. They were then taken to the school auditorium, where they were forced to stay until the entire search was concluded, about 1 1/2 hours later.

    No drugs or guns were found upon the conclusion of the search, according to a press release by the ACLU of Michigan.

    The sweeps were planned and scheduled in advance and, therefore, were not based on reasonable suspicion that any particular student or group of students had committed or was about to commit a crime.

    In addition to the policy changes, the district agreed to pay the plaintiffs $22,500 in damages and attorney fees. The Detroit Police Department also paid $10,000 for its role in the searches.

    Jennifer Mcardle

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