Answer this question without thinking: can administrators ask SROs or law enforcement officers to arrest students just to scare them if the students won’t stop being mean to each other?
We don’t think so, either, and a recent case confirmed what most of us already know.
In a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the judges addressed the question of whether or not the arrest of seven middle school girls was reasonable. The students had a history of conflict and fighting, both in and out of school (KSB commentary: when don’t middle schoolers have conflict!?).
On the day of their arrest, no fight took place. The girls were seated in a school office discussing how to end the “ongoing feud.” The assistant principal then asked the school resource officer to speak to the students. When the SRO began talking to the students, he decided they were being disrespectful. The students whispered and snickered while he was talking (again, middle schoolers…). He told the students he was not playing around and that this was a good opportunity to prove a point and make the girls “mature faster.” He called another deputy for backup and proceeded to arrest all seven students. Several of the students were taken in police vehicles to the county sheriff’s department.
New Jersey v. T.L.O.
Three of the students arrested that day brought a suit against the deputies, the county, the administrators, and the school district. To determine whether the arrests were reasonable, the court examined the conduct of the officers under the standard established in New Jersey v. T.L.O. In T.L.O. a school administrator searched a student’s purse due to suspicion that the student was smoking in the bathroom. The purse contained evidence of smoking cigarettes, as well as marijuana paraphernalia, money, and a list of people “that owed her money.” In T.L.O., Supreme Court found this search to be reasonable as “the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searched by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). The Court established a two part test:
Is the search justified at its inception?
Is the search reasonable in its scope?
The test is fairly straightforward. As long as the search is likely to turn up evidence of the wrongful act, it’s probably justified. A search of student’s bag when drug possession is reported at school is generally justified at its inception. A pat down of a student for theft of a basketball is not, because you can’t very easily hide a basketball in your clothes. Similarly, a search of a student’s bag when drug possession is suspected is generally reasonable in its scope. A backpack is a likely place to put your drugs. Continuing the search to the student’s phone when drug possession is suspected is generally unreasonable in scope, because you can’t hide the drugs in the phone. Courts have applied this reasonableness test to seizures--and an arrest is a seizure--as well as searches. Courts have also extended this test to actions of law enforcement officers on school grounds that are undertaken in concert with school officials. See Cason v. Cook, 810 F.2d 188 (8th Cir. 1987).
In this case the actions of the SRO and the other deputy did not meet either prong of the test. The seizure was not reasonable at its inception. The SRO had general allegations of arguing and fighting, and no specific cause to arrest the students. He was also recorded before and during the arrests and stated, “I don’t care who is at fault, who did what...to me it is the same, same ticket, same pair of handcuffs.” The seizure was also not reasonable in its scope. The court was clear in its condemnation of the deputy’s actions:
The arrest of a middle schooler, however, cannot be justified as a scare tactic, a lesson in maturity, or a chastisement for perceived disrespect.
This case focuses on the reasonableness of the SROs actions. Administrators should continue to be mindful of the limits on their power to search students and their possessions. Administrators should also be aware that they are given significant latitude by the court when conducting a reasonable search of student’s property. The conduct of the SRO in this case was brazenly unreasonable, and a clear case of an attempt to scare students straight that went too far. The case now returns to the trial court for a hearing on damages. The three plaintiffs are seeking $10 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages.
Interestingly, the court in this case determined that at least some of the individuals involved may be personally liable for the damages caused to the girls, because they clearly violated known rights of the students under the Fourth Amendment. At this point it seems likely that the insurance companies for the various entities may negotiate a paid settlement outside of court. However, the court of public opinion is already coming down pretty strongly on this one, serving as a good reminder that students don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate. If any information on the progression of this becomes available, we will be sure to follow up with another post.