Can a school strip search a minor without parental consent, presence or notice?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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There is no single or easy answer to this question, as it depends on the circumstances. It is the case that schools have considerable discretion in searching students, and students have less privacy rights while in school than adults. Behavior that would never be allowable vis-à-vis an adult will sometimes be permissible with regard to a student in grades K – 12.
That said, normally, schools may not strip search students. However, extraordinary circumstances might justify it, or least substantially moderate any liability that the school or school employees might have after the fact. For example, if there was credible evidence or reason to believe that a student was armed and was planning a Columbine-like event—or any attack on another student or teacher—that might justify strip searching the student to determine if he or she was in fact armed. Similarly, one can posit situations where it’s believed a student has a toxic chemical, drug, or even homemade bio weapon, or one in which it’s believed that a student is suicidal and represents a threat to him or herself - here, a strip search may be allowed, or at least effectively ratified after the fact. (For an example of effective ratification, consider the situation where a court concludes the school acted improperly—but refuses to impose any liability).
These are clearly extreme circumstances. In the vast majority of circumstances, a strip search would be clearly and unequivocally improper. However, bearing in mind the lesser rights of children as opposed to adults, as well as a school's responsibility to safeguard the children in their care, it’s impossible to say that such a strip search would never be allowed.
If one were done, in evaluating whether it was at all proper, the following sorts of factors would be weighed:
- The immediacy of any harm or threat;
- The source and reliability of the information triggering the search;
- Alternatives to the strip search;
- How the search was conducted (e.g. a female teacher or nurse for a female student).
However, whether or not the search would be ratified as necessary and done properly, the student’s parents absolutely should be notified as soon as possible.