Search Dogs and Class Disruptions: Are Your Rights Being Violated?

Last semester, campus officials and what appeared to be one or more police officers and a large dog entered some RCHS classrooms. All students were ordered to stand, empty their pockets, place all cell phones on the tables and ordered to wait outside while they searched students’ property. Many students may have been hesitant to object to this intrusion into their instructional time. However, do students know their rights? More importantly, does our school?

According to Assistant Principal of Discipline, Deanne Moore, the Chaffey Unified School District partners with a company for campus searches. “It wasn’t law enforcement,” she explained. “The Chaffey District has a relationship with a company that does these searches. It’s random, they let us know when they’re coming and we affect the searches.” Ms. Moore also stressed that the canines were not “police dogs” but were “dogs trained on detecting drugs or alcohol.” When asked if the people conducting the searches were trained in students’ constitutional rights to privacy, Ms. Moore responded, “When you’re on a school campus, it’s the school and district’s jurisdiction to ensure that campuses are safe. So, those students that are on campus are subject to search. In respect to drug and alcohol searches, [the] Education Code and our district does permit us to conduct those searches.”

However, federal law must also be followed. In 1969, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that “students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors.”  And that those  schools can conduct searches only if there is a “reasonable suspicion.” While the US Supreme Court later ruled in the case New Jersey v. T.L.O that students have “reduced” expectations of privacy in school, the court has not overturned Tinker’s ruling. Thus, school searches must still be constitutional based on reasonable suspicion. When presented with this information, Ms. Moore declared that “it’s never our intent to trample on anyone rights.” However, the district may actually be doing just that.

According to the ACLU of California’s online publication, My School My Rights, in order for campus searches to legally occur, the school must have a “reasonable suspicion” that the search will actually “turn up evidence that you violated a school rule or law.” The ACLU explains that a “reasonable suspicion should be based on facts specific to you or your situation. It cannot be based on a rumor, hunch, or curiosity.” The ACLU also explains that a “school may use dogs to search for drugs on school campus, including unattended belongings like backpacks. But it must have a “reasonable suspicion” to search those belongings. If someone at your school tells you to leave the classroom while drug-sniffing dogs conduct a search, you should try to bring your things with you.”

Searches of students’ cell phones also have limitations. According to the ACLU, “The privacy of your phone… is protected both by the United States and California Constitutions and by the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act.” The ACLU states that the school must have “probable cause that your phone contains evidence of a crime,” before searching a cell phone and only “duly-sworn law enforcement officers,” with a search warrant can conduct the search.

According to Thomas E. Beck, a prominent civil rights attorney with over 40 years experience, these rules derive from the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unlawful government searches and seizures and the Fourteenth Amendment, which ensures fundamental due process. According to Attorney Beck, “We have these rules in place so that we don’t go back to a time when the British government was able to search their citizens, their homes, and their property, without any cause or due process.” Although Attorney Beck could not state whether the RCHS searches were illegal, he said the law generally requires that before conducting a search, a school “has to show some objective evidence of a crime being seen by someone or something; you have to demonstrate you have objective first-hand facts to warrant the search. If you don’t have those facts, then the search violates the constitution and should not be taking place.”

The RCHS classroom searches can be coercive and unfair, especially with the usage of dogs, a tactic long used in this country during enslavement, the Jim Crow era and current abusive police tactics. In fact, more than half of the students questioned about their reactions to these searches said they felt uncomfortable and scared. Aurelius Fleeton, a freshman who also had his classroom searched said, “It was so out of the blue. What was I supposed to do? How am I supposed to react to that? When it happens, it all just feels so weird. I just did what was I was told.”

While RCHS officials may believe they have legitimate reasons for these searches and the manner in which they are conducted, both the district and its students should familiarize themselves with the law to help better ensure that students’ critical constitutional rights are not impaired.

*This article was first published in the Rancho Cucamonga High School campus newspaper in March 2019.