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Random searches of U-46 students debated


By Seth Hancock
  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
  While random searches by police on the personal effects of American citizens would not pass Constitutional muster, what about public school officials doing the same on students?
  The Examiner questioned the Board of Education in School District U-46 after board member Jeanette Ward raised concerns with random searches at its meeting on Monday, Oct. 17.
  “I am very uncomfortable with random searches as a practice Constitutionally,” Ward said before the board voted, and unanimously approved the expulsion of three students.
  Ward prefaced her comment that it “doesn’t necessarily have to do with” any of the students expelled that evening. Asked by The Examiner if any students during her time on the board have been punished based on the results of a random search, Ward said “yes.”
  Random searches have been in practice since the 90s according to a Public Trust and Support Update issued by U-46 in 2008 as one district high school began the practice in 1992 and it was expanded to all high schools in 2008.
  The update states: “Under the plan, random searches for illegal materials or contraband (including weapons) will be conducted. Classrooms will be selected randomly. All students in that room will be checked. The search will be limited to a scan, using a hand-held metal detector, and an inspection of the student’s book bag. Student book bags will be checked in the presence of the owner. All searches will be conducted by school principals, assistant principals, or deans.”
  By its very nature, a random search is done without basis of suspicion making this practice appear to be a violation of the board’s own policy as well as possibly a violation of student’s civil rights based on court rulings.
  Board Policy Section 7.199, dealing with student searches and seizure of property, states: “Neither a mere hunch nor a generalized suspicion is a sufficient basis for conducting a Weapons Pat Down, Belongings Search, Contraband Search, or individual locker or desk search.”
  The Examiner reviewed court rulings regarding the Fourth Amendment and public school students, and the courts have ruled that students have diminished rights at school but they do retain their rights nonetheless. Law enforcement officials are subjected to the higher standard of “probable cause” and must get a warrant to search citizens, but school officials need “reasonable suspicion.”
  In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court ruling authored by Justice Byron White states: “Schoolchildren may find it necessary to carry with them a variety of legitimate, non-contraband items, and there is no reason to conclude that they have necessarily waived all rights to privacy in such items merely by bringing them onto school grounds.”
  By a 6-3 decision, the Court did rule in favor of the school district but did articulate the standard for “reasonable suspicion.” The standards that need to be met include that the search is “justified at its inception” and that it’s “permissible in its scope.”
  “Justified at its inception” means that there is “reasonable suspicion” that a search would produce evidence of violating the law or school policy, but all students are subjected to the possibility of a random search without any suspicion of legal or policy violations.
  A pair of 6-3 Supreme Court decisions, 1995 Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton and the 2002 Board of Education v. Earls, did find that students can be subjected to random drug testing but only if involved in athletics or other extracurricular activities.
  The Examiner provided the entire board a chance to respond to questions. The majority of Traci Ellis, Sue Kerr, Veronica Noland and Donna Smith did not respond to the questions.
  Ward gave her philosophy as she said: “I am very uncomfortable with what is becoming what I view as a surveillance society. No doubt U-46 administration has justification and case law (and support from the majority of the board) to support the practice of random searches, and also cameras in school buildings which is a type of ‘search.’”
  Regarding cameras, Ward was referring to an intergovernmental agreement the board approved allowing the Elgin Police Department access to U-46 cameras.
  “Regardless of case law and current policy, I personally believe our Founders did not intend us to give up the privacy of our children or ourselves in exchange for ‘security,’” Ward added. “Attending public school ought not to mean that Fourth Amendment rights are forfeited.”
  Board member Phil Costello did not feel the searches are an “abuse of powers” because “my understanding is that they are executed in a controlled and reasonable fashion,” but he did find merit in having a public discussion.
  “Frankly, I think the Constitution’s strength is in its protections given to individual’s rights to privacy and expression as well as due process. While I am not an attorney, these are the types of community issues that deserve critical public scrutiny and rational, fact-based debate.”
  Costello added: “As a publicly-funded institution and one that is charged with safe-guarding our community’s children while under our supervision, I am in favor of cost-effective approach that deters individuals with the ability to perpetrate a range of crimes. I believe that this practice is preferred to the widely-employed use of metal detectors and random pat-downs in other public forums.”
  Board member Cody Holt is the youngest member, and he has personal experience with the practice.
  “It could lead to possible Fourth Amendment violations,” Holt said. “As a former U-46 student, I experienced firsthand random searches. Usually they netted nothing but wasted class time. I would not support anything unconstitutional and would like to get more information on the constitutionality of this issue.”

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