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Published: June 25, 2011

Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

One of 10 Amendments to the Constitution passed in 1791 and known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Although the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification in 1787, the majority of citizens protested that it did not list many of the personal liberties and individual rights they assumed they had won in the Revolutionary War. The states responded by making ratification subject to eventual passage of a Bill of Rights. Of 12 original Articles of Amendment, as the Bill of Rights was officially called, 10 were passed. The fourth of these guaranteed the right of people to be safe from unreasonable searches of their person or property and seizure of themselves (arrests), their houses, their papers and other property. The Fourth Amendment had little effect on education, however, until after World War II, when growing student use of drugs and alcohol and weapons prompted some school authorities to conduct searches of individual students as well as their lockers, desks and bags.
The courts have left the question of a minor’s constitutional rights vague, however—a reflection, perhaps, of Congress’s reluctance to define those rights. Nevertheless, the parents of some students have sued and won some cases (and lost some) against school authorities for violating student Fourth Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to produce a decision to clarify the Fourth Amendment rights of minors and has left the question to state courts to decide on a case-by-case basis.
In general, state courts have upheld the right of school authorities to conduct unannounced searches of student desks and lockers, which are the property of the school and not of the student. Searches of students, however, clearly violate student Fourth Amendment rights, and the courts have generally upheld student rights not to be searched unless school authorities believe the situation to be so dangerous to the health and safety of other students and to school property as to warrant such a search. In other cases, the courts have held that school authorities can only search a student’s person with the student’s and/or the student’s parents’ permission. The courts have unanimously denied the right of school authorities to search students off school property. In all Fourth Amendment cases, the courts have generally found in favor of school authorities who have a published policy that clearly states their right to search the contents of desks, lockers and any other school property and the conditions that might provoke searches of individual students.