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Patricia Desilets on Behalf of and v. Clearview Regional Board of Education

Decided: June 16, 1993.

PATRICIA DESILETS ON BEHALF OF AND AS NATURAL GUARDIAN OF BRIEN DESILETS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CLEARVIEW REGIONAL BOARD OF EDUCATION, MICHAEL P. TOSCANO, SUPERINTENDENT, AND CHARLES BISHOP, PRINCIPAL, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Gloucester County.

Long, D'Annunzio and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'Annunzio, J.A.D.

D'annunzio

The issue is whether defendants violated the Fourth Amendment by searching students' hand luggage prior to a field trip. After a bench trial, the trial court entered a judgment for defendants on this issue.*fn1 We now affirm.

Brien Desilets entered Clearview Junior High School in September 1987 as an eleven year old seventh grader. In June 1990, the school planned a field trip to a picnic and campground. The trip was voluntary and recreational. Transportation was by bus provided by the school board. Teachers were to accompany the students and function as chaperones.

Because the trip was off school premises, the school administrators required parental permission. Permission slips were given to the students, to be signed by a parent. Brien's mother signed his slip which contained a statement that hand luggage would be searched. Brien's mother testified that she read the search notice before signing the document.

On the day of the field trip, Brien's gym bag and food cooler were searched before he boarded the bus. No contraband or other items deemed to be inappropriate were found. The hand luggage of all other students boarding the bus was searched.

Mr. Toscano, a defendant and the superintendent of the school system, testified that the board's policy was to search only hand luggage prior to field trips to discover any alcohol, weapons or drugs. The school did not search students' persons or pockets.

The Fourth Amendment protects students from unreasonable searches and seizures by school officials. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 336-37, 105 S. Ct. 733, 739-40, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 731 (1985) (hereinafter T.L.O.). "A search of a child's person or of a closed purse or other bag carried on her person, no less than a similar search carried out on an adult, is undoubtedly a severe violation of subjective expectations of privacy." Id. at 337-38, 105 S. Ct. at 740-41, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 732.*fn2 However, the child's interest in privacy must be balanced against "the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds." Id. at 339, 105 S. Ct. at 741, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733. Anticipating the accelerating violence and disorder in some school settings, the Court observed:

Against the child's interest in privacy must be set the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds. Maintaining order in the classroom has never been easy, but in recent years, school disorder has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the schools have become major social problems. See generally 1 NIE, U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, Violent Schools -- Safe Schools: The Safe School Study Report to the Congress (1978). Even in schools that have been spared the most severe disciplinary problems, the preservation of order and a proper educational environment requires close supervision of schoolchildren, as well as the enforcement of rules against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult. "Events calling for discipline are frequent occurrences and sometimes require immediate, effective action." Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. [565] at 580, 95 S. Ct. 729 [739, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725]. Accordingly, we have recognized that maintaining security and order in the schools requires a certain

degree of flexibility in school disciplinary procedures, and we have respected the value of preserving the informality of the student-teacher relationship. See id., at 582-583, 95 S. Ct. 729 [740-741, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725;] Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. [651] at 680-682, 97 S. Ct. 1401 [1417-1418, 51 L. Ed. 2d 711.]

[ Ibid. ]

In striking this balance, the Court determined that "the warrant requirement . . . is unsuited to the school environment." Id. at 340, 105 S. Ct. at 742, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733. The Court also ruled that "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" is not necessary. Id. at 341, 105 S. Ct. at 742, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 734.

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," Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. [1] at 20, 88 S. Ct. 1868, [1879, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889;] 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," ibid.

[ Ibid. ]

T.L.O. involved an individualized suspicion that a student had been smoking in a lavatory, contrary to school rules. The Court, in reversing the New Jersey Supreme Court, see State ex rel. T.L.O., 94 N.J. 331, 463 A.2d 934 (1983), held that the search of T.L.O.'s purse for cigarettes and other evidence of smoking and the search for marijuana, once cigarette rolling papers were found, was not unreasonable.

The present case did not involve individualized suspicion and, therefore, defendants cannot comply with the following refinement by the Court of its reasonableness test:

Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be "justified at its inception" when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has ...


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