Tuesday, March 06, 2012

When Does a Police Search of a Student Cross the Line?

This issue may play out in a Philadelphia courtroom as result of a federal lawsuit filed against Philadelphia’s school district.

According to the suit, Conover v. School District of Philadelphia, et. al., a 13-year-old female middle school student was subjected to improper touching by school police as a part of a search.  During a two hour search of more than 100 students, a male school police officer is alleged to have placed his hand down the female student’s blouse and touched her chest after running a metal detector wand across her body with negative results. Another female student had a similar experience. The student’s lawyer told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she was told that police were searching for a BB gun, but no contraband was found. The district has denied these allegations.

Would it have been proper for school police to respond this way?  Probably not. This type of search is known as a “strip search” – where clothing is removed or hands are placed under clothing and touch skin. The US Supreme Court says that this type of search is lawful only under the most extreme circumstances, such as when they have information that leads them to believe the student is hiding something under his or her clothes that poses a serious threat to others and there is no other less personal way to search.  But such circumstances are rare.

Under current school district policy, physical searches are to be conducted only when the hand wand goes off, and they must be conducted by a police officer of the same sex as the student. While students have more limited privacy rights in schools, constitutional protections that require physical searches to be based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause apply to school searches.    

If the student’s claims are correct, this search is troubling on many levels. Beyond the harm to this one student and to her classmates, bad searches can lead to conflict between students and school security, creating an atmosphere of distrust and disrespect between students and officials. When officers and students have an adversarial relationship, the officers are less able to obtain information from students that can prevent violence, daily interactions between students and officers are more likely to escalate, and students are more likely to be arrested, sometimes improperly.

Problems such as the ones described in the Conover complaint may be widespread in the district. Safe Havens International, a safety consulting firm that reviewed school police and security operations in 25 Philadelphia public schools, found trouble with the pat-down procedures used in 60% of those schools, concluding that they  would “likely not withstand a proper court challenge.” The report, which raised additional concerns about school policing practices, concluded that addressing these improper procedures “should not only improve school climate and culture, but will likely reduce the number of incidents of students being charged with aggravated assault, as well as officer injuries.”

Interactions between school police and students have become commonplace. During the 2010-1011 school year, some 132 of Pennsylvania’s 501 districts employed sworn police officers inside schools, fully authorized with the power to arrest. This count does not include situations in which outside local law enforcement is summoned.  This presence is likely to increase, as recent changes to state law now require school officials to report a wider range of incidents to police.

Whatever the result of this case, there is an urgent need for school officials to make sure police and school staff follow proper and respectful procedures.      

--Harold Jordan, ACLU-PA Community Organizer