School Law Bulletin #2003/02

The Effective Use of School Resource Officers: The Constitutionality of School Searches and Interrogations

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

During the past several years, school resource officers (SROs) have been welcomed to many public school campuses. The SRO is usually a sworn law enforcement official placed at the school through an arrangement with the local police or sheriff ’s department. Although the presence of an SRO can deter individuals from attempting acts of violence, many school administrators feel that the primary advantage of having one on school grounds is his or her training and expertise in conducting searches and interrogations. As a result, SROs frequently act more like school administrators— questioning students and searching personal effects to enforce the student code of conduct—than like law enforcement officers seeking evidence of a crime. Using sworn law enforce- ment officers to enforce school rules in this way raises constitutional issues that affect both student discipline and the criminal judicial process.

This article addresses the constitutional rights of a student as “the accused” when a school search or interrogation involves an SRO. Often the courts’ view of the amount of due process a student is entitled to depends on the SRO’s official status in the school and the use to which the “fruits” of his or her search or interrogation are put. The level of suspicion an SRO needs to search a student’s person or property may hinge on whether or not that SRO is (1) a sworn law enforcement officer assigned by contract or agreement to work at a particular school; (2) a private, independent contractor placed at the school pursuant to a contract with a security firm; (3) a full-time employee of the school system; or (4) a full-time employee of a law enforcement agency who is called to school grounds to respond to a specific criminal act.

The article concludes that, regardless of the SRO’s status in the school, it is school administrators who must take the lead role in conducting any search or interrogation of students. Only when an SRO is needed to protect individuals from harm, or when the SRO determines that the situation is clearly a law enforcement matter, should the school administrator allow the SRO to take full control of a search or interrogation. Following this practice will avoid constitutional challenges and ensure that the board of education and the courts will deal on their merits with acts that violate both the student code of conduct and the law.

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