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Quick and Dirty

Stripping Students' Rights

By Jason Torres | Posted 9/27/2006

On Sept. 19, a bill that was first proposed in May, called the Student and Teacher Safety Act of 2006 (HR 5295), passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has not yet passed in the Senate, but if it does, it will require school districts around the country to empower teachers and school officials to conduct broad searches of students and their property.

The National School Boards Association has gone on record as being against the bill, stating in a letter to the House that "while this legislation is well intentioned, it nonetheless constitutes bad policy and seems to reflect a basic misunderstanding of the separation of powers under the United States Constitution."

"It's actually forcing schools to intrude on the privacy of these students," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes drug-policy reform. "Congress is telling these schools to do this, [but] local schools should determine their own policy."

Dan Lips, senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, agrees.

"The act diagnoses an important problem: the need to make our schools safer," he says. "But a new federal law won't do much to make our schools safer, and there will be complex issues in implementing and abiding by this new legislation. These complex decisions should be left to state and local communities to determine what's right for local public schools."

One particularly troubling point raised by the Drug Policy Alliance is that the bill would allow school districts to interpret the word "search" broadly. The actual language of the bill states that "the measures used to conduct any search must be reasonably related to the search's objectives, without being excessively intrusive in light of the student's age, sex, and the nature of the offense." The Drug Policy Alliance notes on its web site that, depending on how school administrators interpret the bill, the searches could include pat-downs, bag searches, or even strip searches.

It's not unheard of for school officials to search students, and news reports across the country have raised red flags about search policies at some schools that trample on students' rights. In April 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on a case in which students in Detroit were strip-searched to look for money that had been stolen from another student. The court ruled that the search was unreasonable. Should the bill that just passed the House become law, it's possible that this kind of search could become more common, as it allows teachers to use their own discretion to determine whether a search--and what kind of search--is warranted.

Parents in Baltimore should keep an eye on how this pans out at the federal level, because should it become law, it will be up to the administrators of the troubled city school system to determine whether it's appropriate for, say, a homeroom teacher to pat down or search students he or she feels might be hiding drugs. It will be especially interesting to see how the law would be interpreted at some of the city's most difficult schools, such as Highlandtown, Thurgood Marshall, or Calverton middle schools, all of which have been deemed by the Maryland State Board of Education to be "persistently dangerous."

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