Legal Problem and Solution



As an administrator at Nutmeg Memorial High School, you have been concerned over apparent increased drug use at the school. Last year, only one student had been caught with drugs, but so far this year some fourteen different students had been found with drugs. You have spent one Saturday going through hundreds of student lockers to see what you can find. In two separate lockers, you found marijuana in envelopes addressed to the students. You find a return address on each envelope identifying as the sender Joe Blow, a student at the school who is only a sophomore in terms of academic credit, though he has been at the high school for five years. When you interview the two students, they explain that Joe operates a Website offering ginko biloba for sale, but everyone knew it was really marijuana.
Provide a written response (one to two pages) to the following:
How do you respond to this discovery?
Are you concerned about any violation of student rights?
Is Joe subject to expulsion?
The case raised many interesting legal topics. There are many issues regarding the scenario that deserve discussion. First, there is the issue of increased drug use at Nutmeg Memorial High School (NMHS). Next, we must consider the actions of the administrator both in searching all the lockers, and with the results of the search. Finally, there is the issue of the drug discovery and appropriate school response to Joe Blow. Each issue deserves more clarification, but the overriding legal precedent for this scenario, is the T.L.O. case, because T.L.O. sets the “reasonable” standard for searching students and student property. However, Connecticut Statue permits administrators to search lockers for the presence of “contraband, weapons, or the fruits of a crime” (Mooney, p. 352), if they uphold T.L.O. standards, have posted policies of such searches, or if they are conducted at regular intervals.
The administrator has a legitimate concern for the safety of students at NMHS. This concern is exacerbated when looking at the documented drug cases from this year to last year. It would be important to look at any changes in board policy, or enforcement of policy, that may have led to an increase in documented cases, but such evidence is not presented in the case. It might be that NMHS has a long history of a drug problem, and this year the administration has finally caught on to the problem. So with many scenarios, more information regarding the increased drug use is needed to clearly decide how “real” or “new” the problem really is at NMHS.
Taking the position that this administrator did, it is evident that he or she had reason to suspect that students would be keeping drugs in their lockers. However, under the T.L.O. test, the administrator must have a reasonable suspicion to search each student’s property, including his or her locker. Clearly, the administrator did not believe every student was involved in the drug problem at NMHS. I believe the administrator unmistakably violated the “reasonable at inception” portion of the T.L.O. test and violated each students’ right to privacy.
That said, if this administrator had a board policy, provided to the students that clearly articulated that the lockers were school property and would regularly be searched, then he or she might not have violated NMHS students’ right to privacy, under the Connecticut statue that clarified search of lockers as admissible given these constraints. Again this situation suggests otherwise, but more information would be needed to clearly determine if such a policy was given to the students and subsequently followed. For future consideration, to help solve the problems of drug use, and avoiding the potential conflicting with the rights to privacy of the students, such a policy should be adopted for the remainder of the year, or at minimum next year. Any new policy would need to include and have follow up that students lockers will be routine searched.
Regardless of the legality of the search, Joe Blow could be disciplined, and may be subject to expulsion. Mooney states, “the common understanding that an item seized in an illegal search cannot be used” applies to criminal law and the rule, “does not affect the right of school officials to take disciplinary action when there has been a violation of the school rules” (Mooney, p. 351). Clearly the case is building against Joe Blow for expulsion pertaining to the “sale or distribution of drugs,” a mandatory expulsion. However, I believe that more information would be required than just finding multiple packets of drugs in identical envelops and students claiming they were from Joe Blow. The interview and return address of the envelopes in my opinion would be a reason to specifically search Joe’s locker, and him, upon arrival at school the following Monday. This might strengthen the case that Joe is actually distributing the drugs. It would also be very important that the two students caught in the questionable search present their statements to the expulsion hearing, otherwise it would be hearsay.
In conclusion, I believe it was questionable how the administrator went about searching the lockers; I also believe he violated all the students’ rights to privacy under the fourth amendment. The search was not reasonable at its inception. However, with the results of the search Joe is subject to discipline, granted more evidence is found against him. My fear would be that Joe could deny everything, and you only have one student’s word against another, which would be very weak in an expulsion hearing. In addition, the expulsion resulting from an illegal search could subject the district (the administrator could be indemnified) to liability under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for infringing Joe’s civil rights.