School officials wrestle with off-site search rules

Debate centers on when to call a student's parents

Carroll County

July 28, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

When Carroll County school board members disagreed recently about when to notify parents that a child has been searched for contraband while on a field trip, school officials decided to rework their proposed search-and-seizure policy.

"We're working out language that would address a parent's right to be notified if their child is the subject of a search," said Stephen Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration.

School officials are expected to propose at today's board meeting that a "reasonable attempt" be made to contact a student's parents after a search has been conducted, Guthrie said. In most cases, this notification would be made by phone.

"Who makes the phone call would depend on the situation and the results of the search," said Guthrie, who worked with an advisory committee to modify the proposal.

The original proposal lacked a parent-notification provision, prompting one board member to request that one be added.

"As a parent, I have the right to know what's going on," board member Laura K. Rhodes said.

Rhodes maintained that unless there is "clear and present danger," parents should be notified before their child is searched.

"If we're talking about a weapon or whatever, obviously you do what needs to be done to make the situation safe first. But there are times where that is not the case, and at that point I do believe the school system should notify parents before interrogating and searching students," Rhodes said.

Other members disagreed, noting the need to give teachers a way to handle emergencies while away from school grounds.

"It's essential that parents be notified after a search has happened, but I see no benefit - nor do I think it's good policy - to require administrators, or even make them attempt, to contact a parent prior to search," board President C. Scott Stone said in a recent phone interview.

Other board members said it would be impractical to expect school officials to notify a parent when a situation arises on a field trip.

"It'd be very difficult to notify the parents before you did the search when you're in Washington, D.C., on a trip" and the parents are back home working, said schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker.

Ecker suggested that parents could be notified before a field trip that their child could be searched if the teacher finds it necessary.

The proposed policy is the result of a new state law that authorizes school officials to designate a teacher to conduct student searches on school-sponsored field trips.

Previously, only principals, assistant principals and school security guards were allowed to conduct student searches and to seize illegal items.

But because people in those positions rarely attend field trips, school officials needed a way to handle student searches on field trips, Guthrie said.

Teachers, who would be designated by their principals, would undergo the same training as administrators on how and when to conduct searches.

"We approach searching students with great care and only do it when we believe that a student is carrying an unlawful item or that other students are at danger," Guthrie said.

The school board's student representative, Andy McEvoy, said he would prefer that at least an attempt be made to notify parents before a search is conducted, but he realizes that might not always be feasible.

"If a situation is dangerous, teachers should have the right to search a student because at that point they're responsible for all the kids," said McEvoy, a senior at Century High in Sykesville.

"But whether before, during, or after a search, parents should be notified in some official capacity. ... You're the parent, you have the right to know what's going on with your kid, whether it's bad or good," McEvoy said.

Student Brendan Schlauch, a junior at South Carroll High in Sykesville, agreed.

"If someone is carrying something they shouldn't be - whether it's weapons or drugs, etc. - then a ... search and seizure is reasonable. It protects students and school officials," Schlauch said.

Board member Rhodes said she is glad the parent-notification issue is being seriously considered, and she is awaiting the committee's revised proposal.

"I'm willing to hear from others and entertain discussion about it. I'm not unmovable, but I'm not willing to give up parents' rights."

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