We’re hearing more and more about fights on school grounds these days, and the restrictions on what schoolchildren can and can’t do on those same school grounds seem to be getting tighter. It seems that every day school officials are announcing they are at the end of their ropes, and that the criminal justice system is getting involved.
Years and years ago a program called Scared Straight was introduced to high schoolers, designed to show troublemakers what the inside of a jail really feels like. In the original 1978 documentary, the alleged troublemakers were taken to Rahway State Prison, where a group of inmates sought to "scare them straight" in hopes that the troublemakers would begin taking steps to avoid their own jail sentences.
While the participants in the documentary were volunteers, recently the California courts sought to clarify whether school resource officers (usually law enforcement officers assigned to a school campus,) could arrest a student as a way of scaring straight uncooperative students. In that case, and in response to an on-going conflict a between group of students, the school’s assistant principle called a meeting with the students, and invited the school’s resource officer (a Sheriff’s deputy,) to attend. When the meeting didn’t go as planned, the deputy formed the opinion that the students were being uncooperative and disrespectful, and within “minutes” of his arrival at the meeting threatened to take all the students to jail to “prove a point.” As he continued to lecture them, he also stated that he didn’t care who was ultimately at fault. Unfortunately, his threats did not convince the students to cooperate with his inquiry so he arrested all the students for a violation of Penal Code 415- Unlawful Fighting. One student was cited and released to her father, the other six were taken to jail. No disciplinary action was taken against the students at school, and no charges were ever filed in the court system. When the parents of a few of the student sued, our courts were asked to determine the constitutionality of the student’s arrests (a “seizure” under the US Constitution’s 4thAmendment) in this situation.
As it pertains to the 4thAmendment, the US Supreme court has previously held that “the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” As a result, school officials, under certain circumstances, can conduct warrantless searches of students, even where the traditional level of probable cause hasn’t been reached. In these cases, whether a search is allowable “depend[s] simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.”
So, in these situations, what is reasonable? …When there is a “special needs exception” to the general warrant requirement. In making this determination, the court uses“a twofold inquiry,” which first looks to “whether the search (or seizure) was justified at its inception,” and then whether “the search (or seizure) as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” In these “special needs” situations, the “actual motivation” of law enforcement should be considered.
The court here decided that the arrest of the students was not “justified at their inception,” because there were only vague allegations of fighting, with no information about who instigated the fights; the school resource officer clearly stated he was arresting the kids to make a point. As a result, the court held that the student’s arrests were constitutionally unreasonable. “The arrest of a middle schooler . . . cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect.”
New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325. Generally, law enforcement is held to stricter standards, but when they are on campus and acting at a school official’s request the same relaxed standards that apply to the school officials apply to law enforcement officers.
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