St. Mary's Law Journal
Considerable disagreement persists as to the fourth amendment rights of students within schools. Particularly, this disagreement regards the extent to which fourth amendment rights possessed by students may frustrate reasonable attempts by educators to maintain the order necessary to preserve an educational environment.
In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court considered an argument advanced by the State of New Jersey that the “pervasive supervision” of school children diminishes the legitimate expectation of privacy a child may have in property “unnecessarily” brought to school. The Court concluded that the necessity of maintaining security and order in the educational environment was an important interest demanding a measure of flexibility for its effective attainment, yet without sacrificing legitimate privacy interests of the students. This flexibility is achieved in part by dispensing with the warrant requirement and in part by modifying the level of suspicion required to authorize a search.
While the T.L.O. majority did not directly hold a student’s expectation of privacy was lower because of his status, the result is substantially the same. If suspected violation of trivial rules not subverting the educational needs of students may be the basis of a full-blown search, the balance struck by the Court accords privacy rights no weight in such cases.
Balancing competing interests to achieve reasonableness is often appropriate, but, like all fluid concepts, requires great care to avoid abuse, and whatever its virtue, it is likely to foster inconsistency of application and result. When measure after measure is removed from one side of the balance without tipping the scales, it can only be because gravity is stayed by an interested hand.
Gerald S. Reamey, New Jersey v. T.L.O.: The Supreme Court’s Lesson on School Searches, 16 St. Mary’s L. J. 933 (1984).