Student Concern Over Searching Practices: “Nothing was Found”


Kelsey Deering

Police Liaison Steve Dahlson demonstrating use of a Garrett Metal Detector on senior Stella Olson, recreating a search. Photo by Kelsey Deering.

  As e-cigarette use increases among high school students, the easily concealed nicotine-delivering devices have created a conversation around Fourth Amendment practices in public schools.
  According to Kane Education Law lawyer Margaret O’Sullivan Kane, the Fourth Amendment prevents government or state actors from engaging in unlawful search and seizure. In public schools, school personnel—who are state actors—must have reasonable suspicion that a student has violated a school rule along with probable cause. Probable cause has a much higher standard than reasonable suspicion.
  “Over time, the courts have developed a reasonable suspicion standard as a compromise between what a parent would be permitted to do and what we have to hold government officials responsible for,” said Kane. “Reasonable depends on the judgment of the person.”
  “There has to be reasonable cause for doing a search and that would never be done alone as a police officer has to be involved,” said Associate Principal Tyler Shepard.
  “You have to understand where we’re coming from when we search. We’re underneath the school so we don’t search any body or backpack without the dean present or asking us to search someone,” said Police Liaison Steven Dahlson. “They have to ask us. The school, when you’re a student here, has different rules that they are under.”
  Legally, the school has the power of parens patriae, which is Latin for ‘the school stands in the shoes of the parents.’ This creates a compromise between what a police officer can search and discipline versus a school official.
  “If you were to go from drugs to alcohol to vaping to weapons, there’s a wide range of reasons why we would do a search. Vaping is probably one of the most common reason,” said Shepard.
  According to Dahlson, a search can stem from a hall monitor smelling vape in the bathroom. “The hall monitors might then come to us to review security surveillance and identify what kids were in the restroom,” said Dahlson.
  The hall monitor then brings the student to their dean to conduct an interview. If the dean feels more precaution should be taken, the liaisons will get a call to do a search. “We will search their backpack, the person, or their car. Whatever is designated to be searched,” said Dahlson. “There are also cases if a kid walks by and I smell raw marijuana on him, because in my training experience I know what that smells like, I have probable cause to search that student as a police officer.”
  According to Dahlson, This scenario would still include being escorted to the dean’s office. “A police officer doing the search eliminates issues where someone would say that this dean is searching more males than females,” said Dahlson. “We will do around 99 percent of the searches.”
  When it comes to reasonable suspicion policies at Wayzata High School, Shepard said: “There isn’t a policy per se because it’s so subjective to what we’re seeing.”
  When asked about whether reasonable suspicion is too subjective to teach and define, Kane said, “No, it’s not that subjective. You can be educated on it, but the reality is that it’s the administration’s responsibility to make sure that people are properly educated about it. They’re the ones that are responsible for knowing the standards, to use them, and to train their own staff to understand.”
  According to Shepard, WHS trains their staff on a yearly basis see things differently and have the conversations needed. When at WHS as a student, you can be searched at any time, said Dahlson.
  “I would be floored if there was a student that has been searched multiple times and nothing was found,” said Shepard.
  Junior Jake Bauer said he has been searched three times at WHS and has never been found with anything against school rules.
  “The day after my first search, I was called into the office because I had Febreze in my car,” said Bauer. “They searched my whole bag and they wanted to go out to my car. They didn’t find anything in my bag, so they never did.”
  “It doesn’t even pass the smell test. I always tell people that if it smells like it stinks, it probably does. It’s not an individual standard, it’s what a reasonable person would conclude,” said Kane in regards to Bauer’s particular case.
  “I was 100 percent honest and they knew that, but they still said they had to do it,” said Bauer. 

I was 100 percent honest and they knew that, but they still said they had to do it.”

— Jake Bauer (11)

  Junior Zoe Lien said she was searched, undergoing multiple searches without resulting in the discovery of illegal items.

  “One of the deans saw me walk into the restroom. There was a huge group of girls, but they all left. The dean walked in and asked me what I was doing and I said I was using the bathroom. She said they got a report of vaping. I was like really? For the two minutes I’ve been in here?” said Lien. “She asked if it would be okay if she searched me, so she checked my sweater and leggings in the bathroom. Nothing was found.”
  Concerning Lein’s scenario, Kane said searching in a bathroom is not a questionable practice from a legal standpoint: “If you’re going to search someone and have pat them down, it makes sense to search them in a private place, but I don’t know if the bathroom is the best place.”
  According to Dean of Students Kathryn Bennett, confidentiality with searches is held to a high standard.
  “Even when we’re at school dances when we give students breathalyzer tests, we always bring them to a super hidden spot so they don’t feel like there’s a huge spotlight on them,” said Bennett. “We would never search them right then and there because that’s such a violation of privacy.”
  According to Dahlson, a new program using Garrett metal detectors was instituted last February, reducing the intrusive nature of searches.
  “If we’re looking for a vape, the metal detector will help us find it. If we’re looking for something that doesn’t have metal in it—such as marijuana—we have to perform a hand search,” said Dahlson.
  Dahlson said on a slow week he uses his metal detector six to eight times.
  “The introduction of the Garrett metal detector has created a standard—there’s probably one in every airport in the world,” said Dahlson. “This should put parents at ease, as it is commonly used.”
  “We want to guide students and sometimes the criminal justice system isn’t the right path,” said Dahlson. “However, tobacco and tobacco delivering devices are illegal in school, so besides an automatic school consequence, we can cite them with a juvenile citation.”
  According to Kane, having a police liaison involved in searching can prove to be problematic from a legal perspective.
  “For a police officer to charge you, they have to have a higher standard which is probable cause. Probable cause has a much higher standard than reasonable suspicion,” said Kane. “If someone were to be charged with criminal proceedings as a consequence of the search by a school official—there’s a problem there.”
  “Personally, I don’t like searches. It’s one of the ickiest parts of this job. At the same time, I need to make sure that we’re creating a safe space for everybody,” said Bennett.
  In her experience, Kane said school officials are often not well trained or knowledgeable about the rights of students to be free from search and seizure.
  “They are not very thoughtful or reflective about their actions. They don’t wake up every morning and think: ‘I have to do this better. I have to learn and understand more,’” said Kane. “Typically the practices that you see that are unlawful are not from people that have malice or ill will; they just truly don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing.”