Imagine a school where all children are safe, happy, and given the best opportunities possible to learn and develop – a simple yet powerful picture that is the aim of all schools. Unfortunately, modern times have seen increased classroom distractions and even violence, raising concerns with parents and governments. And it often starts with the stuff students bring to school. So, can teachers touch or confiscate your stuff?
Teachers can touch, inspect, or confiscate your personal belongings if it violates the school or US district policies. Policies regarding prohibited items in school or the confiscation of them by school officials are in place to ensure students’ safety and right to a conducive learning environment.
According to the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the US Constitution, students have the right to privacy. Yet, these rights are limited in schools that promote safety and education. Anything that hinders this, such as students’ having personal items that are dangerous or distracting, may be confiscated within the boundaries of the law.
Can Teachers Touch Your Things?
By concrete definition, a teacher may touch, i.e., come into deliberate or unintentional contact, with a student’s things. A teacher needs to handle certain items to be able to do their job. These ‘things’ can range from school-owned materials to a student’s personal property.
A teacher needs to handle student worksheets, books, and projects. They need to hand out learning materials and resources, such as arts and crafts tools.
A teacher may briefly touch a student’s property when offering one-on-one support and using a student’s writing tool (e.g., pencil) to demonstrate a concept on paper. Or to move a student’s schoolbag that’s obstructing traffic.
In these cases, touching a student’s things is harmless and part of the natural day-to-day operations. This level of contact is especially prevalent in elementary classrooms. These teachers must be more hands-on, for example, showing young students how to hold drawing materials or helping them tie their shoelaces.
Can Teachers Confiscate Your Personal Belongings?
A teacher may legally confiscate (take) a student’s personal property if the item or its usage is against school policy.
As Americans, students have a set of fundamental rights. Yet, the courts place some restrictions on them in schools to protect students and promote learning. Watch the following video to find out more about students’ rights while in school:
Many schools list prohibited items in their policies for the sake of clarity, which can range from skateboards to firearms.
For instance, a teacher may confiscate a personal item, like a fidget spinner, that is visually or audibly distracting the student or their peers from paying attention during a lesson. Being distracted from learning constitutes an intervention to help protect all students’ rights to an education.
A level up from a toy is things like illegal drugs, weapons, and devices, that can severely alter students’ rights.
One such example is the confiscation of cell phones. Although more controversial, taking a phone is still allowed if its presence in a classroom is a distraction or is at the root of bullying.
Still, schools must ensure that the confiscation process aligns with school and district policies.
Yet teachers may only inspect the contents of phones with students’ permission or reasonable suspicion.
The legality of a teacher asking students to empty their pockets or taking any personal item deemed dangerous or a distraction firmly rests on the school having the necessary paper trail.
Any written proof that students and parents/guardians have been informed of the relevant policies that prohibit the said items deems a confiscation legal. In most cases, such policies are communicated to students and parents/guardians upon admission to a school.
Once parents/guardians sign documentation that outlines all the rules, including prohibited items, it acts as a binding contract between the school and the student. This agreement allows teachers to confiscate prohibited belongings, the details of which depend on the school’s policy.
Such policies can also be presented in a student handbook, which the student signs and thus agree to.
One example of a school’s right to confiscate is the Supreme Court case Koch v. Adams (Arkansas). A student sued their school for confiscating their cell phone without returning its sim card, claiming it violated their rights. Since the school had documentary evidence that explained the consequences of having a cell phone at school and followed those exact steps, the student had no legal leg to stand on.
Some schools, like San Lorenzo High School in California, took another approach. Rather than navigating the often tricky terrain of confiscating devices, they have implemented Yondr into their classrooms.
Yondr is a product that allows phone-free spaces without the need for confiscation. Students put their phones into a locked pouch for a set period which can only be re-opened by a Yondr magnet. See how this works in the video below:
How Long Can A School Keep A Confiscated Item?
The legal confiscation period of a student’s property should be, at most, the period outlined in the school’s policy. Teachers may thus confiscate and keep unauthorized belongings for as long as the relevant policy states, even if that means keeping them overnight or for several days.
For example, Sunset Park High School communicates its policy on its school website, which states that it can confiscate devices for 1-5 days, depending on the nature of the violation.
However, schools should ensure that, if items are confiscated, they have the necessary facilities to keep the students’ property safe from damage or theft. Schools should ideally keep confiscated items in a locked safe under the responsibility and management of the school principal.
Are Schools Allowed To Conduct Searches?
Two amendments play a role in school inspections: the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution. The former limits a school’s searching powers to protect students’ privacy. The latter protects students being held or questioned about their personal property or activities without being told the charges or given a chance to explain.
Still, a student’s right to privacy may be limited if an inspection is conducted of the school’s or district-owned property, such as desks, lockers, or technological devices. Schools can freely inspect these items.
A school may also inspect a student’s personal belongings (e.g., school bags, cell phones, etc.) if the search is reasonable, including being justified at the beginning of the investigation.
The scope of the search must also relate to the circumstances that justified the search. Schools are thus allowed by law to conduct searches without a warrant if:
- the school has a reasonable suspicion that the student has broken the law or school rules
- the scope of the investigation is related to its purpose and is not excessively intrusive.
Something to note is that the student’s privacy rights may have more protection when a school search involves a student’s cell phone. In this case, the Stored Wire and Electronic Communications and Transactional Records Access Act applies when schools search for devices capable of storing electronic communications. Thus, inspections of this nature must follow the relevant district guidelines.
Even though teachers may touch or confiscate a student’s stuff, it must happen within the legal limits of the school and district regulations.
These actions include searches, which should only be conducted where there is a reasonable suspicion of rule violation. Still, schools should respect students’ right to privacy in the process.