The Legal Toll of Drug Sweeps in Hallways

by Nathan Essex

Suspecting widespread use of illicit drugs, police charged into the school hallways at Stafford High School in Goose Creek, S.C., in 2003. Videotapes show officers yelling with guns drawn while subjecting more than 100 students, most of them African American, to a drug search.

Many students were handcuffed and pushed against lockers. Other students immediately dropped to their knees while police held their faces to the floor. Officers pulled students’ backpacks into the middle of the hallway while a police dog sniffed the line of bags. No drugs were found, but three lawsuits followed.

The obvious question is whether the drug sweep was reasonable under the circumstances.

Class action lawsuits were filed in December 2003 against the Goose Creek Police Department and the Berkeley, S.C., School District. A federal judge in Charleston, S.C., earlier this year approved a preliminary plan to settle the suits. Judge Patrick Michael Duffy said he found the drug sweep plan to “be in order and appropriate.”

Under the terms of the $1.2 million settlement, two funds would be established. A $25,000 fund would compensate students for their medical expenses stemming from the hallway bust, and the remainder would be distributed to the students.

Delicate Decisions
To search or not to search is a vexing issue facing public school leaders responsible for providing a safe learning environment while respecting students’ privacy rights. Achieving this delicate balance is a significant challenge at times.

In the South Carolina incident, school officials indicated that students and teachers previously reported drug activity in the particular area where the drug sweep occurred. Based on these reports, police briefly monitored the schools’ surveillance cameras. A team of 14 local police officers conducted the drug sweep in an attempt to apprehend students suspected of drug activities.

It remains unknown whether actual drug activities were observed during the local police’s monitoring of the hallway. No evidence suggests the victims of the sweep were the same students monitored for alleged drug activities.

The plaintiffs who filed suit against the Goose Creek police and the Berkeley County School District believed the police action was unjustified because students in the hallway were treated like suspects. They further contended that school officials had no reason to assume these particular students were involved in any illegal activity.

Legal Standards
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1985 case New Jersey v. T.L.O., established legal standards that apply to school searches. The court emphasized that legality of a student search depends on the reasonableness under all circumstances of the search.

Based on the court’s view in the T.L.O. case, the constitutional validity of a search is determined on two levels. The first level considers whether the search is justified at its inception, when reasonable suspicion becomes significant. Was the search reasonable in view of the information obtained by school officials? The second level addresses the means used to conduct the search itself, whether it was reasonably related to the search’s objective and the circumstances that precipitated it.

Courts generally require a relationship between the extensiveness of information supporting reasonable suspicion and the extent of intrusion on students’ privacy rights. Because the courts support the view that reasonableness depends on the context within which the search occurs, specific knowledge of violations linked to a particular student or students is needed to justify a search.

The reasonable suspicion standard in T.L.O. applies only to searches conducted by school officials and not those conducted by police officers who must conform to a higher standard involving probable cause when conducting a search in a public school. In such cases, a search warrant is required.

Probable cause suggests it is more likely than not that police officers will find the evidence they seek. Thus, police officers must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that evidence of the crime will be discovered at the scene. Probable cause cannot be justified based on a mere hunch, rumor or suspicion.

A Cautious Approval
The implications of this case suggest that school leaders should err on the side of caution and be certain sufficient grounds are established before initiating a sweep search. They should be mindful a higher standard of reasonableness must be established when police officers are involved in school searches.

Sweep searches should not be initiated unless there is absolute certainty that sufficient grounds are established to conduct these searches. If police officers are involved, be certain a warrant is presented before allowing a search. To minimize legal challenges, parents and students should not be surprised by sweep searches. They should be informed through school policy regarding conditions that give rise to a sweep search. Meanwhile, don’t be reluctant to initiate a reasonable search in cases where students’ safety is involved. Balance school safety against the privacy rights of students.

Additionally, the searches should not be excessively intrusive and should consider the age and gender of students affected. School officials also must determine whether an immediate threat to the health and safety of others exists.

Lastly, intrusive searches should be conducted only when there is strong suspicion of illegal activity.

Nathan Essex is president of Southwest Tennessee Community College, P.O. Box 780, Memphis, TN 38101. E-mail: