In a recent California Supreme Court decision, the court reviewed the power of school officials to stop a minor student, 14 years of age, in order to ask questions, conduct an investigation, or proceed with a search. The minor asserted that the officers were required to have reasonable suspicion before they engage in such activity; the school authorities asserted that the usual requirement of reasonable suspicion was inapplicable to a public school environment.
Cathy, a campus security officer at the public high school attended by the minor, testified at the trial court level that during the time in which students move from one classroom to another, she came upon the minor and a friend in an area where students were not permitted to congregate.
When the student saw the security officer, he "fixed his pocket very nervously." The security officer noted that some of the lining of the left pocket was still sticking out, and asked the two "if they needed anything and instructed them to go to class."
The security officer followed the minors to see where they were going since the minor appeared "very paranoid and nervous." She thereafter notified her supervisor who arranged for another security officer to assist.
The two officers proceeded to the classroom, contacted the minor, and requested to see him outside the room. In the hallway, the first officer asked the minor "if he had anything on him." The second officer asked the minor for a consent to search his bag and also for permission to do a patdown search. The minor provided permission to the officers. A patdown search revealed a knife, with a locking blade, in the minor’s left pocket.
The trial court denied a motion to suppress the evidence of the search, commenting that the officer had simply "engaged in ‘good security work’ based on the minor’s looking nervous or paranoid and adjusting his pocket upon seeing her . . . ."
On appeal, the minor argued that the campus security officer had lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a violation of school rules, and that his consent to the search was simply a product of unlawful detention.
The California Supreme Court held, however, that the usual prerequisites to a constitutional search, such as reasonable suspicion, can be modified when "special needs" render such rules impracticable. The court noted that "special needs" in a school setting exists in light of a high governmental interest in education and the need to maintain order at schools, and in view of the minimal intrusion on a minor who is stopped and questioned.
The court then proceeded to state that school officials, including campus security officers, have the power to stop a minor student, ask questions, and conduct an investigation even in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a violation of school rules so long as the authority is not exercised in an arbitrary, capricious or harassing manner.
The court states:
"If the school can require the minor’s presence on campus during school hours, attendance at assigned classes during their scheduled meeting times, appearance at assemblies in the auditorium, and participation in physical education classes out of doors, liberty is scarcely infringed if the school security guard leads a student into the hall to ask questions about a potential rule violation."
Finally, the court states that: "To allow minor students to challenge such a decision by a campus security officer under these circumstances ‘would make a mockery of school discipline and order."
The moral of the story? The education mission of schools is best pursued in an atmosphere of safety. Common sense, in this case, was supported by legal reasoning, albeit 16 pages of fine print!