Connecticut School Searches: What Can and Can’t Happen?

Imagine this scenario – your child comes home from school and tells you that a school employee, such as a teacher, the principal, or a resource officer wanted to search their property. You teenager didn’t know what to do, so they went along with the search. Was the search actually valid? And what happens now

You want to put yourself and your teenager in a situation where they know their rights so that they can avoid unnecessary searches. Consider the following questions and scenarios.

Can the Schools Search For Weapons or Drugs?

Yes. Your teenager’s privacy rights are limited when he or she is on school grounds. School officials have the ability to search for weapons and drugs. They can search your teen’s locker, car, and even their person depending upon the circumstances.

What are the Limits of School Searches?

Schools are usually not required to get a warrant to search. School officials need timely, practical authority to maintain a safe school free of crimes and disruptions. However, there are a few limits on school searches:

  • The search must be justified at its start. This means that there must be a reasonable suspicion that the search will find evidence of a violation of the law or school policy; and
  • The search must be reasonable in scope. This means the search must not be excessively intrusive in light of student’s age and gender.

Basically, if the search is reasonable under all of the circumstances, the judges will uphold it.

Schools can:

  • Search lockers, purses, gym bags, and backpacks;
  • Use metal detectors in schools and at school events;
  • Have dogs sniff student bags, lockers, and cars parked on school grounds;
  • Use breathalyzers at proms and other extracurricular activities to test for alcohol use;
  • Test for drugs by urinalysis for sports participation and other extracurricular activities; and
  • Do pat-downs and (even) strip searches of students.

Once school officials start a search, even if they find something other than what they were looking for, the search is still valid. For instance, if your teenager was patted-down looking for cigarettes, and a knife was found in their pocket, the search is valid even though no cigarettes were actually found. And of course, your teenager would be arrested for weapon possession and sanctioned under school policies.

School Officials Searched My Teen’s Backpack – Is This Allowed?

Yes, so long as the search is justified.

For example, a teacher spotted your teenager with a marijuana joint in the school hallway. So long as the school official had a reasonable suspicion that your teenager had something illegal and the scope of the search is reasonable, the school official has the right to stop your student and to search him or her. In this situation, searching the student’s purse or backpack is allowed.

My Teenager’s Car Was Parked in the School Parking Lot – Can It Be Searched?

Yes, to a degree. Anything visible in “plain view” within the car is fair game. School officials can walk through the parking lot, and if they see a beer can or a marijuana joint on the car’s seat, they can take action.

The school can also have the police use dogs to search the exterior of parked cars in the student parking lot. The dogs, which are specially-trained to sniff out drugs and weapons, are led through the parking lot to sniff the outside of each parked car. So long as the use of the dogs is based on a reasonable suspicion, and is not overly intrusive, the search is valid under the law.

Sniff Searches

If the Dog Reacts to the Car’s Trunk, Can the Police Just Open It?

No. Even if the dog “alerts” to a particular car, the police cannot simply open up the car and search through the glove compartment, or the trunk. There is still an expectation of privacy in these areas. So, even if the dog’s sniff signaled to the trunk of your teenager’s car, then the police would need to follow up to get either consent to search the trunk (from you or your teenager) or get a search warrant signed by a judge.

Can the School Use the Dogs to Sniff Students’ Lockers?

Yes. School officials can have the police use dogs to search through the school’s hallways and lockers. The dogs are detecting odors of drugs or weapons in the air. Your teenager has no expectation of privacy in the odors coming from their school locker. Based on the dog’s reaction, the school officials can then open up and search individual lockers.

Can the School Use the Dogs to Sniff My Teenager?

Probably not without a specific search warrant. Everyone has the greatest expectation of privacy in their own body. Connecticut’s judges have not dealt with this particular issue. However, there is a big difference between searching public areas of the school (hallways or student parking lot) and directly searching the body of a student. A person is different from a backpack, locker or car.

Can the Schools Search My Teen’s Cell Phone?

This is a real “hot” area. There is no Connecticut case on this subject (yet). But school systems can make policies restricting the use of cell phones on school grounds. Even if cell phone use is allowed, schools can limit email, text, and data use. Teachers can certainly seize a disruptive cell phone that is interfering with a class without a warrant.

Whether the teacher or the principal can then look through the phone and search the student’s texts, emails, and other data use without first getting a warrant is still an undecided question. Arguably, if the cell phone is not password protected, they might be able to look through it.

Cell Phone Searches

What Can I Do to Protect My Teenager From a Cell Phone Search?

We strongly suggest that you and your teenager password protect the contents of the cell phone. Recent legal decisions have held that if an adult’s cell phone is password protected, then both the password and the information contained on the cell phone might be considered privileged. The same should apply to a student’s cell phone.

Can the School Officials or the Police Make My Teen Tell Them The Password?

No. Your teenager has two powerful rights in play. First, they have the right to remain silent. Secondly, they have the right against searches without a warrant.

Your teen does not need to answer any of their questions. Your teen does not need to give them the password. They cannot make your teenager input the password into the cell phone. All of these are illegal searches.

The school officials and police will threaten your teen. They will seize the cell phone. They will bluff that they are going to charge your teenager with a crime. No matter.

You should instruct your teenager to:

  • Never to give up that password;
  • To demand to speak to you immediately; and
  • To demand to speak to a lawyer.

Getting Help

If your teenager faced a school search, it is a good idea to contact a criminal defense lawyer to discuss their rights and what happens next.