The Incriminating Purse

September 09, 1994|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

On a March day in 1980, a high school teacher in New Jerse caught two girls smoking in a lavatory. She marched them off to the principal's office; and thereby hangs a tale that is worth reviewing as the school year begins.

What are the constitutional rights of high school students? We know from Supreme Court opinions that their right to freedom of the press is limited; school authorities may control the content of a student newspaper. Their right to freedom of expression is broader; students may wear black armbands to protest a war.

Students have a First Amendment right to pray voluntarily in school. It is unclear whether they may vote to have prayer at commencement exercises. If student clubs generally are permitted to meet on school grounds, a Bible study club must be granted the same privilege.

What about a student's Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure? Here we run into some troublesome areas. And here we go back to Piscataway High School in Middlesex County, New Jersey, in March 1980.

One of the girls whom the teacher nabbed is known in Supreme Court reports simply as T.L.O. She was then 14. Taken to the principal's office, she was interrogated by an assistant vice principal with the Dickensian name of Theodore Choplick. T.L.O.'s companion confessed to smoking; she plays no further part in the story.

T.L.O. denied the charge. She insisted she did not smoke at all. Mr. Choplick demanded to see her purse. He opened the purse and saw a pack of cigarettes. ''You've lied to me,'' he said. He dug deeper into the purse and found a packet of rolling papers of the kind used with marijuana. He turned the purse inside out and found a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, a substantial quantity of $1 bills, a card bearing the names of students who owed her money, and two letters that implicated her in marijuana dealing.

Mr. Choplick summoned the police. The state brought delinquency charges. T.L.O. moved to suppress the evidence from her purse. The trial court denied the motion. Eventually T.L.O. was found to be a delinquent child and was placed on a year's probation.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 15, 1985, after argument and reargument, the high court held 6-3 that the school had not violated T.L.O.'s rights. It was a close call. The case produced five separate opinions spread over 38 pages of the Supreme Court Reports.

Nine years later, the case of T.L.O. is back in the news. By one account, given credibility by A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times, 135,000 students take a gun to school every day. Another estimate doubles that figure. The situation is clearly appalling.

South Carolina has adopted an act, specifically keyed to the T.L.O. case, that says: ''Notwithstanding any other provision of law, school administrators and officials may conduct reasonable searches on school property of lockers, desks, vehicles and personal belongings such as purses, bookbags, wallets and satchels with or without probable cause.''

Under the South Carolina act, ''any person entering the premises of any school in this state shall be deemed to have consented to a reasonable search of his person and effects.'' The act prohibits strip searches. It requires that notices must be conspicuously posted at school entrances.

The school year had no sooner begun before several Charleston County students reported to their principal that a 14-year-old had a gun. Said the principal: ''We took him out of the classroom at the beginning of the second period and searched his bookbag.'' There they found an unloaded .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol and a clip of ammunition. The student faces expulsion.

Given the facts in the Charleston County case, I see nothing wrong in the steps that were taken. The student informants provided probable cause to search the boy's belongings. The Supreme Court held in T.L.O. that school officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority.

What about random searches of all lockers, all bookbags, all backpacks?

I would have big problems with any such sweeping procedure. Students ought to have some expectation of privacy in their purses and lockers. Without specific, credible tips that would justify a search, I would urge that these teen-agers be left alone.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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