Should students who are minors always enjoy the same constitutional protections as adults? When the US Supreme Court reconvenes next month, the justices will grapple with this sticky question. Specifically, it will be called upon to spell out the rights of students who are suspected of breaking school rules and, in some cases , civil or criminal law. The court's decision will almost surely set a precedent.
The case involves a New Jersey high school student accused of breaking a no-smoking rule. A vice-principal searched her purse and found not only tobacco cigarettes but marijuana cigarettes and evidence that the girl was selling them to other students.
At this point police were called in and the girl was arrested and eventually tried. Her attorney argued in court that the evidence was illegally obtained, because no warrant had been issued for searching her purse. The absence of a warrant violated his client's Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure under the US Constitution, the lawyer said. Consequently the evidence should be excluded from the proceedings.
The trial court disagreed. The girl was found guilty and sentenced to a year's probation.
The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, saw it differently. It ruled that Fourth Amendment rights apply not only to adults but also to students in public schools. The state's highest court agreed with the defense that school officials acted improperly and that the evidence in the purse should not have been admitted.
At issue in the coming US Supreme Court review are two key questions: When searching for drugs or weapons, are school officials playing the role of law enforcement officers or the role of parents (in loco parentis)? And do students who are minors enjoy the same constitutional protections as adults?
The US Supreme Court decision could have a bearing on the highly controversial ''exclusionary rule'' - the longstanding precedent that allows suppression of evidence in a trial when improper detection and arrest procedures have been used. So far the exclusionary rule has been applied mainly to adults. It has also been invoked solely in cases of possible misconduct on the part of law enforcement officials, not in cases involving the actions of school officials or other civilian authorities.
Last spring, the Supreme Court relaxed the exclusionary-rule standards, ruling that evidence may be admitted in a trial even when police act improperly but in ''good faith'' or to maintain public safety.
Conceivably, the public-safety factor will come to the fore in the New Jersey school case. The rationale of the school officials in the case (and of the Reagan administration) is that protection of all students must be the paramount concern. With this in mind, principals, teachers, and others in authority should be given maximum latitude to detect and restrain anyone suspected of carrying a gun or engaging in drug-related activities at school, the argument goes.
Civil liberties groups, on the other hand, are concerned about students' privacy and rights to due process of the law. Although they, too, say they abhor violence and disruption in the classroom, they stress that school authorities should not act as police officers.
In deciding, the court will need to keep several points in mind:
* The need to check violence and antisocial behavior - whether in the factory , the suburb, the ghetto, the classroom, or the schoolyard. Criminal activity interferes with academic pursuits and the process of maturing.
* The desirability of having principals and teachers deal with rule infractions without involving the police, using disciplinary measures with the cooperation of parents.
* The importance of protecting the privacy and dignity of students. Schools are dedicated to teaching democratic ideals. They can best do this through example. A student suspected of criminal activity should be informed of the alleged crime; searching of lockers and personal effects should take place only under extreme circumstances; body searches should rarely, if ever, be made.
* The realization that school officials are not policemen. They are not trained for law enforcement. And they should not be called upon to act as an extension of the arm of the law.
* A recognition that police should be called only in situations where there is specific evidence of criminal activity and where school disciplinary action won't work. But once the police are involved, juveniles must then be afforded full constitutional protections as citizens. When the student becomes a criminal suspect, and not merely a transgressor of school rules, he or she must enjoy a full range of specific rights under the law.
A balanced, thoughtful ruling is imperative.