As a part of School Law course for my MSE in Educational Leadership from ASU, Professor Curtner had students work on several case studies. I personally found these quite interesting and meaningful as a tool for leadership development. The scenario was supplied to me by Professor Curtner, but the answer is my original content. I hope this will generate some discussion about exactly how to handle a situation like this one in a school setting.
Scenario: “The Twenty Dollar Bill”
Debbie Mason stood in the hallway facing Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Hall. In her 2 years as assistant principal of Ridgewood Elementary School, Debbie had found Mrs. Johnson to be a reasonable and effective teacher. However, right now Mrs. Johnson did not appear reasonable. In fact, she was obviously angry and had sought the aid of Mr. Hall, who was quickly working up to her level of indignation. Just to make sure everything was clear, Mrs. Johnson restated her position: “No one is leaving here until I find out who stole the money!” Debbie quickly learned that Rebecca Smith, a student in Mrs. Johnson’s third-grade class, had informed Mrs. Johnson that someone had taken $20 from her book bag. After some questioning, Mrs. Johnson discovered that the bag had remained in the classroom during recess and had been in the classroom unsupervised for 5 to 10 minutes. Mrs. Johnson had vainly searched desks, book bags, papers, and books. She was now determined to enlist Mr. Hall in a “bathroom search” of the students in the class. Something about the idea of a “bathroom search” made Debbie anxious, but Mrs. Johnson seemed absolutely determined to find the money.
Although it is easy to sympathize with Mrs. Johnson’s anger over the matter of the missing $20, she has placed the school in a difficult situation by searching book bags without individualized suspicion; any type of strip search will certainly be questioned by parents and will likely end up in court. Students do have a right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. The US Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey v. T.L.O. that teachers and administrators do not need to have a warrant in order to search a students’ belongings, but school officials must have a reasonable cause to conduct a search. The more intrusive the search, the higher the standard of reasonableness; therefore, a strip search requires a very high standard of reasonableness, because it is a complete invasion of personal privacy.
When it comes to matters of student and staff safety, the right to search a student’s belongings or body is much easier to defend. For example in Brousseau v. Town of Westerly, a pat-down of several middle school students leaving the cafeteria was ruled justified because school administrators had found a large knife was missing from the kitchen. The only time strip searches should be conducted is if there is a clear and immediate threat to health or safety of students or staff. The matter of the missing $20 is sad, but no student or faculty member’s life is in danger.
Under the given scenario, the bathroom searches are ill-advised. In Watkins v. Millennium School District, a strip search of three third grade students was considered unreasonable. Although at the time the money went missing, there were only three students in the room, the court felt that a strip search for $10 was a ridiculous over step on the part of the teacher. Even if Mrs. Johnson had been able to narrow down the suspects to one or two students, she would have found it difficult to be considered reasonable. Violating the privacy of several students in a hunt for $20 is beyond the legal rights of the school. Even the search of the student desks on this scale is questionable at best. A teacher or administrator must have more than a simple hunch or gut-feeling in order to search desks. Had Mrs. Johnson or a student witnessed the theft, then searches of desks and book bags could be considered reasonable.
Debbie Mason should get control of the situation before more damage is done. As the assistant principal, she should instruct Mrs. Johnson calm down and continue class immediately; Mr. Hall should return to his room as well. Mason should then explain that she will call students out one at a time and talk with them, but only the students who returned from recess early. She will get the names of the students who returned from recess early from Mrs. Johnson. Hopefully, with some gentle questioning and no screaming or threatening, some students will be able to supply information that will lead to finding the missing $20.
If the money is not recovered, she should write a letter to the parents apologizing for the loss of the money, but pointing out the section of the student handbook that states that students should never leave money in lockers, desks, or book bags unattended. Money can always be left with the building secretary who will place it in the school safe. Without at least one student stating that they witnessed the theft or heard another student talking about the money, there isn’t much that can be done. The principal should be informed of the entire situation.
Assuming that a student did witness the theft or heard another student talking about the money, then the student seen with the money or heard talking about the money should be questioned (possibly for the second time). The student’s book bag and desk have been searched, so if the student has taken the money it is possibly on his/her body. At this point, the principal should be informed of the situation. The principal and assist principal should consult the student handbook and follow the procedure listed. The parents of the student should be contacted. Any type of intrusive search is difficult to defend in court, so it is very important to seek the cooperation of parents. The situation should be explained to the parents and they should be asked for permission to have the child empty his/her pockets and remove his/her shoes. If the parents refuse to grant permission, then the child should be sent back to class with no further action taken. If the parents grant permission, then the very limited search of the pockets and shoes should be conducted.