School lockers -- no sanctuary

As all teachers know, every moment in school is part of the education of students. It's not only the teaching of the three R's that counts. It's also the tone of the school, plus the degree of respect and support for each other of teachers and administrators on the one hand, and students on the other.

That is why a recent court ruling on students and the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution is unfortunate. The five-to-two ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court aims to protect students in school from unreasonable search and seizure, a protection guaranteed all Americans by this amendment. No one should quarrel with that.

But the majority decision was overly restrictive in guidelines it says school administrators must use before searching lockers where they believe students have stored contraband, such as drugs or weapons. And it was too narrow in viewing only the lockers as students' ''home away from home''; rather, that is what the whole school is.

One responsibility of school administrators is to retain control of their schools, and to keep them free from both safety and drug problems. Given reasonable grounds for suspicion, they must be able to open any student lockers believed to contain either drugs or weapons. Otherwise the cultures of violence and drugs are able to enter the hallways of education. Parents with the financial means then often respond by sending their children instead to private schools, thereby further weakening the public system.

One responsibility of the schools is to educate their students out of the inappropriate use of their lockers, such as for the storage of weapons and drugs. What does it teach students to give them a place in school in which to store something illegal, and, in the case of drugs, to use as the base from which to conduct an illegal business - drug sales?

In its ruling the court emphasized the importance of students' rights to privacy, in their lockers. Privacy indeed is important.

But high school students are maturing teens, not yet mature adults. Adults - teachers and administrators - need clearly to be permitted to be in charge of schools, while at the same time using this authority responsibly. They must establish firm guidelines for student conduct, and enforce them fairly. Most students need these; they are a protection for the many who want to learn against the actions of the few who would disrupt.

But still more important is the need for decency in the schools - the real home away from home during school hours. Educators, students, and parents deserve it. When a school succeeds in establishing an atmosphere of cooperation, mutual respect, and decency, good things happen: Accomplishment, pride in that accomplishment, and cooperation increase; vandalism and other problems diminish.

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