Are Strip Searches Allowed in New York Schools?
Increasing violence and other illegal activity occurring in our schools has seen the proliferation of “ZERO TOLERANCE” policies in many New York schools and in entire school districts around our nation. These policies, of necessity, very often involve the search of a student by New York school officials who seek to find out if the prohibited item, whether a weapon or an illegal drug, is in the student’s possession.
The question arises as to when such a search is permissible and, even more seriously, how intrusive may that search become. In June, 2009, the United States Supreme Court decided a case involving a 13 year old school girl (Susan). Another student had accused Susan of giving her drugs. The suspicion was that Susan had brought prescription strength ibuprofen to school. School officials (two females) ordered Susan to strip to her underwear, and then pull her upper and lower undergarments away from her body to see if the suspected drug was on Susan’s person. The judge that wrote the opinion for the court called this search an “…embarrassing, frightening and humiliating search…..” The decision of the Court did not give school officials a clear cut guideline to determine if a strip search is permissible. It rather set forth some guidelines that may well continue to make it very difficult for school officials in the future to decide whether or not a strip search would run afoul of the law. The guidelines the Court seemed to establish as factors:
–the extent of the danger of the contraband in question (for example: ibuprofen vs. heroin);
–how well founded is the suspicion that the contraband is hidden in an intimate place.
As Justice Souter wrote in deciding that this particular search was Constitutionally ILLEGAL:: “The content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of the intrusion” especially in light of the “nature and limited threat of the specific drugs.”Some school districts, such as the New York City Department of Education, simplify matters and ban such strip searches under any and all circumstances. Do keep in mind that as far as searches in general (not just strip searches) are concerned, the Constitutional requirements to allow a search by school officials (“a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing”) are LESS demanding than those that must be followed by the police (“Probable Cause”). Even an attempt to simplify this area of law, as we tried to do here, indicates the potential complexity involved when dealing with searches of all kinds. The services of a well seasoned New York City attorney, knowledgeable through experience in this difficult area of law, at as early a stage as possible, is invaluable in protecting your rights.