Everyone agrees that our schools should be a safe place where children can focus on the important work of learning. They shouldn’t be worried about what one of their classmates is pulling out of their backpack when they are sitting down to study. Teachers, administrators, parents, and kids all generally agree that one of the easiest ways to prevent violent incidents on school grounds is to perform periodic locker searches.
Many of these locker searches pros and cons involve a balance between the rights of the student and the need for the school to provide a safe environment for learning.
Although there are some concerns about privacy rights being violated when performing searches, many school districts are creating user agreements that students and parents must sign that dictates how the space is use. The Imani School locker agreement provides this paragraph on privacy.
I understand and voluntarily relinquish any expectations to a right of privacy. I knowingly and voluntarily consent to locket inspection by a school administrator at any time without notice. All lockers are property of The Imani School.
These are the key points to consider when looking at both sides of the debate about locker searches.
List of the Pros of Locker Searches
1. Locker searches are an effective tool that finds contraband quickly.
The most significant advantage of locker searches is that administrators or security personnel can quickly find hidden contraband that a student may be storing. These items may include weapons, illegal drugs, stolen property, or other products which could be dangerous to themselves or other people. Because the items are found in the locker of the person involved, it is a simplistic way to establish guilt and reduce the threat risk at the school.
During two school years in Los Angeles, the Unified district confiscated a total of 37 knives, 18 containers of pepper spray 16 razor blades, three shanks, two box cutters, and even a stun gun. Among the non-weapon items that were confiscated, there were 137 pairs of scissors that could also be used as weapons, 73 instances of illegal drugs, and 56 over-the counter medications.
2. It is a tool that can be localized to suspected students.
Schools are trying to protect the privacy rights of their students as much as they can by only performing locker searchers when there is a reasonable suspicion that they have done something wrong. What defines “suspicion” can vary between districts, but it is usually an agreed-upon term between parents and officials upon enrollment. Drug-sniffing dogs and other enforcement methods to detect contraband may also trigger the right to search a locker for banned items.
3. Students may stop bringing items to school.
When kids know that there are locker searches being performed, then they are less likely to bring dangerous items to school. Although some might decide to keep weapons in their pocket instead, security officials are trained to spot these potential risks when they seem them on school grounds. This combination of factors works to create a safer environment for everyone because those who are at a higher risk to commit violence are spotted earlier, while any contraband items that do exist can be confiscated immediately.
4. The lockers belong to the school district and not the student.
There are some exceptions to this advantage, such as when a student pays a rental fee for their locker at school. In that situation, a random locker search may not even be legal in some jurisdictions. From a generalized standpoint, the lockers that students use when attending school are the property of the district, not the student or their family. The purpose for providing this space is to give kids room to store their various books for their daily classes instead of forcing them to lug things everywhere all day.
If a student or family doesn’t like the idea that they are voluntarily submitting to random locker searches, then they can decide to forego the use of this tool while they are at school.
5. Locker searches provide students with more confidence in their safety.
The statistics of school violence are almost overwhelming in the United States. Roughly 160,000 students decide to skip at least one day each year (sometimes without their parents knowing it) because they feel unsafe when going to class. Up to 100,000 students admit that they sneak in weapons to school every day not because they want to hurt someone, but because they want a way to defend themselves if something happens. Because locker searches are useful in turning up contraband that exists, students can have the confidence to report their suspicions and know that something can be done to protect their safety.
6. It creates a level of trust in the school that can facilitate more learning opportunities.
Students may not fully trust the adults in their lives when they go to school. They have every reason not to do so today. Margaret Gieszinger was arrested in California after a video surfaced showing her singing the Star-Spangled Banner while forcibly cutting one of her student’s hair. When the teacher was finished with the first student, she grabbed at a girl’s long hair before all of the students try to escape from the classroom.
Locker searches might feel invasive to some students and families, but they are also a way to establish a level of trust. Assuming that connection isn’t abused by frequent searches or targeting behaviors by teachers or administrators, the work involved to create a safe environment can help kids retain more information.
7. Many school districts have been granted “in the place of the parent rights.”
When parents send their kids to school, then in many jurisdictions there is a transfer of parental rights that occurs on a temporary basis. This process is called “in loco parentis,” or “in place of the parent.” It grants the administrators at the school the same rights as a parent to inspect student property without violating their civil rights. As long as there are rules that the school follows when conducting a locker search and there are witnesses present, then this inspection for safety purposes is not an effort to violate student privacy.
List of the Cons of Locker Searches
1. There can be inconsistencies on how the searches are performed.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is the largest in the world that requires every middle- and high-school campus to conduct daily random searches for weapons. They use metal-detector wands and random backpack searches in addition to locker reviews. An internal audit of 20 schools published by The Los Angeles Times found that some schools weren’t conducting the searches every day. 25% of them didn’t even have enough wands to perform the searches correctly. Even how students were chosen was not uniform across the school district.
2. Schools do not need probable cause to search a locker.
Although students often sign away their right to privacy in exchange for the use of a locker on school grounds, administrators will often search these spaces when there isn’t probable cause to do so in the first place. The Supreme Court has already ruled that these random searches are Constitutional in the United States, but the potential damage they can cause to a student’s reputation can be severe. If the same student receives a “random” search repetitively, then others may see them as a troublemaker even if the only intention of that child is to go to class to learn.
3. Locker searches can create embarrassing circumstances.
Even when students are discouraged from keeping personal items in their locker, there are some essentials that we all need to get through our day sometimes. For teen girls, that might mean storing extra tampons or maxi pads in this space to take care of their needs. There might be love letters, contraceptives, personal drawings, or diary entries that rant against school officials that are not meant to be a personal attack, but it could be treated that way upon discovery.
4. It can have a negative impact on homeless students.
Although this disadvantage doesn’t apply to every school district, the larger cities and schools often have a handful of homeless students who bring all of their possessions with them to class every day. Being subjected to random locker searches is a frightening experience because they don’t know if an adult might decide to confiscate their items. Using the example contract from The Imani School, any personal items found in the locker that violate the rules are held for a week before they can be recovered. If your entire life is in a backpack and someone takes that away, it would have an intensely adverse impact on the learning process for that student.
5. Locker searches do not account for neighborhood situations.
There are schools in Los Angeles where some students carry weapons with them every day as a way to feel save while they are walking to or from classes. When schools begin to look more like a prison than a learning environment, then it can lead to a greater negative perception of the overall school climate. Administrators must take the crime activity of their neighborhood into account before cracking down on kids who carry pocket knives or other tools that help them to feel safe. We need to address the reasons why they don’t feel safe before accusing them of improper conduct.
6. The locker searches are often more common outside of advanced placement classes.
Teachers and students who are involved with the Los Angeles Unified School District say that randomized searches are less common for students who are in honors, advanced placement, or gifted-and-talented classrooms. Observers note that these demographics typically have more Caucasian students than other classes, so kids who are part of a racial or ethnic minority are usually targeted more often for a search.
7. Ownership of items is assumed when they are found in a locker.
Many schools offer locks to students, allowing them to protect their items while they attend class. Administrators often know the combination to these locks or provide a master key that can open each one. When contraband is found in a locker, then there is an automatic assumption that the student is the person that left the item there. That may be the case in most instances, but it is important to remember that the kids are not the only ones who have access to this space. Is it reasonable to assume guilt if multiple parties have access to the locking mechanism?
These locker searches pros and cons put students into a Catch-22 situation. They need to have a safe place to store their belongings so that they can safeguard their materials. There must also be a way for administrators to locate potentially harmful tools or weapons that could be used in an act of violence. In return, there is a lower expectation for privacy because anything that is not an intrusion on the person and involves reasonable suspicion qualifies the action. If you are concerned about locker searches in your school, the only available option to avoid this issue is to opt out of having a locker – or not putting anything in there in the first place.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.