Utah locker searches: Privacy invasion or wise precaution?

Published December 26, 2013 12:20 pm
Schools • Keeping kids safe without crossing the line: Alpine district weighs its options.
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Sometimes teens make meaningless threats.

And sometimes they're hiding weapons.

Paula Hill remembers a hunt at Orem Junior High for a makeshift weapon that a student planned to use "to kill somebody." Educators checked the student's locker and clothes before ultimately finding it hidden down a leg of his pants.

"I'm glad we got that table leg out of there, because it had a flange with a nail on it," said Hill, an Alpine District board member who was then teaching at the junior high.

Since the Newtown school shooting last year, schools and parents across the country have debated how to keep kids safe while also protecting their rights and privacy. It's a debate that's come to Utah, as the Alpine District re-examines its policy on searching students and their lockers.

District leaders are proposing changing Alpine's policy to allow locker searches without students' presence anytime there is "reasonable cause" or "reasonable suspicion" to do so, rather than just in specific situations. The proposed changes would also no longer require parents be notified if a student refuses a search.

The changes would also eliminate a prohibition on searching students' personal belongings within lockers.

Opponents say the changes go a bit too far, violating students' rights to privacy, while advocates say they'd rather err on the side of safety and students shouldn't expect privacy when it comes to school property.

'This is school property' • During debate at a December Alpine board meeting, board member Brian Halladay raised the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"To me it doesn't really coincide with Article Four in the Bill of Rights," Halladay said.

But board member Scott Carlson said there's a difference between protecting students at school and respecting individuals' privacy outside of school.

"This isn't personal property, this is school property," Carlson said. "This is not somebody's home."

Alpine first began looking into revising its policy after Orem Junior High principal Joe Jensen found a knife in a student's locker last school year.

The student's parent was upset that the student wasn't present for the search, Jensen said. He suggested the district revise its policy to make that and other issues clearer.

He said the changes should bring the policy more in line with how schools handle such searches across the country.

"When we have a report there is something dangerous in a student locker we don't want to hunt down the student," said John Patten, district spokesman. "We are going to go right to that locker and substantiate whether that was factual or not."

Jensen estimates that administrators at his 900-student school search a locker about once a month, usually after getting a tip. About 70 percent of the time, administrators find nothing, he said.

In other cases, they typically find stolen items, drugs, drug paraphernalia, cigarettes or, very occasionally, a pocket knife.

He doesn't always get students involved or notify parents, especially if the tip is questionable or nothing is found. Still, he said, administrators investigate even questionable tips.

"You certainly don't want to be the school that got the tip and didn't do anything," Jensen said, "and then that student ended up having a weapon and used it."

'The greater good' • All Utah school districts are required to have policies for searching students for drugs and weapons. Those policies must also "ensure protection of individual student rights against excessive and unreasonable intrusion," according to state rule.

It's common for policies to allow locker searches at any time, as lockers are school property, though searches can't be discriminatory, said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation at the State Office of Education.

But districts vary a bit on how specific their policies are when it comes to contacting parents, involving students and searching students' other belongings.

The Davis District, for example, says "school officials have no obligation to contact parents before detaining and questioning students." But the policy goes on to say, "... notifying parents of the student search is often a good idea."

Ben Horsley with Granite District said Granite typically notifies parents of searches, though not necessarily beforehand. Granite also has its own police force, so officers sometimes conduct searches rather than administrators.

Over the next couple of months, Alpine board members and administrators will iron out the details of a new policy. Some Alpine students, not surprisingly, are wary about making locker searches easier.

Erin Williams, a senior at American Fork High, said she understands lockers are school property but she'd hate to see them searched as a result of tips from practical jokers or teens seeking revenge on their peers.

"I feel like if it's just someone saying, 'Oh, I heard there's something,' that probably shouldn't be a big enough reason to search a locker," she said, acknowledging, "but you having a locker means you've agreed to the fact it's their property."

Williams' mother, Michele Williams has a slightly different take. She wouldn't want to see kids asked to randomly empty their pockets, but she has no problem with locker searches.

The proposed policy changes would allow school officials to ask students to empty their pockets based on "reasonable suspicion" rather than "reasonable cause."

"The way things are these days," Michele Williams said, "I think you have to have the greater good in mind. You have to protect students."

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