On Searches by School Resource Officers: Are They School Officials or Police Officers?
In light of school safety concerns that have plagued the nation since the 1990s, resource officers have become commonplace our public schools. They are the collaborative effort of local police department and boards of education, serving a myriad of roles as educator, investigator, advisor, and a source of interaction and resource for students. However, what are the constitutional burdens imposed on a resource officer when he or she conducts a search of a student or the student’s property?
First, let’s rewind to 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that while the Fourth Amendment in general applies to searches conducted by teachers or school officials, they are not held to the stringent warrant requirements that constrain police action. As further elaborated:
[T]he accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teacher and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider whether the … action was justified at its inception, second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.
In other words, school personnel are permitted to search student property (which includes purses, backpacks, and automobiles on school property) so long as the search is “justified at its inception” and permissible in scope. The search cannot be excessively intrusive. However, what the Court in T.L.O. declined to produce was “the appropriate standard for assessing the legality of searches conducted by school officials in conjunction with or at the behest of law enforcement agencies, and we express no opinion on that question.”
Thus, we return to our original inquiry: because a resource officer serves functions both on behalf of the school and of the local police agency, what is the standard that applies? It does not appear that this question has been put to the test here in Connecticut, though other jurisdictions have progressively contemplated this scenario, and it boils down to three hypotheticals:
- School official initiates search/police involvement is minimal: reasonableness test applies.
- School resource officer initiates search on own initiative or at direction of a school official so as to “further educationally related goals”: reasonableness test applies.
- “Outside” police officer initiates search: warrant and probable cause requirements implicated.
In determining the level of police involvement, various factors are considered:
[W]hether the officer was in uniform, whether the officer has an office on the school campus, how much time the officer is at the school each day, whether the officer is employed by the school system or an independent law enforcement agency, what the officer’s duties are at the school, who initiated the investigation, who conducted the search, whether other school officials were involved, and the officer’s purpose in conducting the search.
Because of the lack of a uniform standard as promulgated by a Supreme Court decision, different courts have come to wholly divergent conclusions purely based on application of the above factors. In Alaniz, the North Dakota Supreme Court determined that the school resource officer involved was “more like a school official,” thus implicating the less stringent reasonableness standard. Conversely, this past August the Washington Supreme Court ruled that “the school resource officer was not a school official and thus the more lenient standard of ‘reasonable suspicion’ applied to searches by school personnel did not apply.”
Every instance of school searches conducted by resource officers is unique, and as such determining whether it was reasonable or implicated greater Fourth Amendment protections may be difficult without the assistance of an experienced school law practitioner.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.
Should you have any questions regarding school discipline, searches, or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.
 New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985).
 Id. at 342 n.7.
 State v. Alaniz, 2012 N.D. 76, ¶ 10. See, e.g., T.S. v. State, 863 N.E.2d 362, 367-68 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007); Myers v. State, 839 N.E.2d 1154, 1160 (Ind. 2005); State v. Burdette, 225 P.3d 736, 750 (Kan. Ct. App. 2010); In re D.L.D., 694 S.E.2d 395, 400 (N.C. Ct. App. 2010); State v. J.M., 255 P.3d 828, 832 (Wash. Ct. App. 2011). Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.ndcourts.gov/_court/opinions/20110259.htm
 Id. at ¶ 11. See T.S., at 369-71; Burdette, at 740; R.D.S. v. State, 245 S.W.3d 356, 368 (Tenn. 2008).
 Id. at ¶ 12.
 “Court Invalidates Backpack Search by School Resource Officer,” by Mark Walsh. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/school_law/2012/08/court_invalidates_backpack_sea.html