Student searches

ONE of democracy's most difficult tasks is weighing the rights of the individual against the protections for society as a whole. Throughout American history the balance has changed repeatedly, in response to the march of events and the fluctuation of public views. This week's decision by the US Supreme Court on the searching of students' possessions in school fits into that framework. For now, at least, the court settled one question: It decided that school administrators and teachers had a right to search students as long as they had ``reasonable'' grounds to believe they might find a violation of law or school rules. But in so doing it raised many others.

The court narrowed the privacy protections the Constitution affords students, and it broadened the power of the state, as represented by school officials, to protect society at large by seeking out evidence of weapons or drugs. It is a decision that deserves support -- provided the rule of reasonableness is followed.

But the whole situation is complex. The majority opinion aptly expressed the dilemma confronting society: ``How . . . should we strike the balance between the schoolchild's legitimate expectations of privacy and the school's equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place?''

As noted in the majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Byron White, schools in recent years have faced serious problems keeping order: ``Drug use and violent crime in the schools have become major social problems.'' The more permissive societal emphasis on individual rights has not solved these problems; it may be time to test a measured degree of additional authority for the schools. Some searches involving weapons or drugs may still more properly be handled by law enforcement officials.

The decision implicitly places a responsibility on the schools to act in good faith when conducting searches, in order to protect the rights of students: The majority opinion of the court explicity notes that students do retain rights to privacy.

School districts now ought to set up standards for conducting searches, to ensure that they protect the dignity and rights of students and do not constitute an abuse of power.

Several notes of caution are appropriate in assessing the effects of the court ruling. It is imperative that the rights of students to due process of law, and to privacy, be retained.

Further, the misapplication of the standard of ``reasonableness'' by officials with an overly authoritarian bent must be guarded against. It is an instance in which the potential now exists for an intrusion of authority by a governmental representative -- in this case, a school official -- into the privacy and rights of the individual. The situation bears careful watching.

As this week's birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, only 20 years ago or so government officials in many communities within the United States were trampling on the civil and individual rights of citizens, predominantly black citizens, in the most un-American authoritarian fashion.

Implicitly the decision promises more than it can deliver. By itself it will not end the violence and drug use which are so prevalent in many American schools. Rather, that will require higher standards and stronger action by families and communities. Yet the decision, employed in good faith, provides one tool to aid school administrators and teachers in improving the state of order in the classroom and the corridor.

The court ruling raises as many questions as it answers. Does the same standard of reasonableness, which in this case involved the search of a female student's pocketbook, also permit the searching of students' desks or lockers?

Must a school official have suspicions about the guilt of an individual student, or may he search several in the reasonable belief that one in the group has broken a school rule?

In addition, there is the question of whether young people ought to receive a lesser degree of constitutional protection against an invasion of their privacy than should adults.

Clearly the courts will have many opportunities to rule on these and related questions. ----30{et

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