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Sioux Falls Proposes Searching Teachers’ Personal Property

Good grief: can we work anywhere anymore without giving up our basic Constitutional rights? Mr. Ehrisman alerts me to the Sioux Falls School District's effort to nullify the Fourth Amendment for its teachers:

The local teachers union opposes a proposed policy that would allow Sioux Falls School District administrators to search employees' private cell phones, purses and vehicles for suspected violations of district policy.

If adopted as written, a supervisor would need only "reasonable suspicion" of a policy violation or crime in order to search any personal property an employee brings to school. The union argues the standard should be "probable cause," in which case only police officers with a warrant could conduct a search [Josh Verges, "Teachers Wary of Search Policy," that Sioux Falls paper, 2011.03.20].

Oh, there go those darned unions again, trying to destroy America and capitalism by talking about silly things like fundamental human rights.

The prospect of school administrators riffling through a teacher's smartphone apps, messages, and passwords ought to raise the same privacy alarms that motivated some opposition to the driving-while-texting ban during the Legislative session. The concerns ought to be even greater here, as we are talking not about police enforcing investigating violations of law but school employees with minimal legal training investigating mere school policy violations, not by kids, but by teachers, by fellow professionals whom we purportedly trust and admire.

I suspect this proposed search and seizure policy is an outgrowth of Nicholas Jastorff hysteria. I would suggest that if school administrators have concerns that a teacher may be conducting an illegal relationship with students, the school still needs to notify law enforcement and let the cops handle searches with a warrant issued by a judge who sees those concerns rising to the level of probable cause.

I would also suggest that unconstitutional policies like the at-will search of personal property by your boss will only make it harder for folks to justify putting up with the low pay and long hours of teaching.


  1. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21

    It appears to me that the school district is merely trying to hold the teachers to the same expectations of privacy that they currently impose on the students. If you bring it on school property you have no expectations of privacy.

    If students can be held to that standard (no expectation of privacy) then why not teachers?

    Joseph G Thompson

  2. Nonnie 2011.03.21

    IMHO neither teachers NOR students should be subject to these invasions of privacy. What authority do they actually have to do this for the students or the teachers?

  3. Nonnie 2011.03.21

    I just realized I agree with Cory again?!?!

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.21

    Joe, I've always rankled at the notion that we should treat teachers like students. We are professionals, fellow adults, peers with administrators and school board members. Children get all sorts of different rules from adults.

    But I can roll with Linda here. I never even liked it when the school would bring in the drug dogs and demand that students put their book bags in the hall and then stay in the classroom while their bags were searched out of their sight. Constitutional rights do not end at the schoolhouse gate. The best way to teach the Constitution is to follow it.

    And Linda, please hang onto that agreement with me at least through election day, April 12. :-)

  5. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21

    The school district and people who fear everything and everyone are the authority.

    You do agree with Cori. I have found that those on the left and right agree more often than not. The right is more consistant in their beliefs than the left, but that is another argument.

    No one should ever be required to surrender a right to be somewhere they (the students) must by law be.

    Joseph G Thompson

  6. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21


    Trust is a two way street. If the teachers and school district do not trust the students to do the right things then why should the student trust the teacher or school district to do the right thing? We must be judged as individuals and not groups.

    You choose to call all teachers professional, I however do not. Respect and the term professional are earned not given and many teachers have forgotton or have never been taught that.

    Without a doubt many of those teachers protesting being seached thought it was perfectly alright to do so to students.

    Joseph G Thompson

  7. slhart 2011.03.21

    There was a time when teachers were considered professionals unless they proved otherwise on an individual basis rather than just assuming teachers as a group are not professional.

  8. LK 2011.03.21

    I realize it's risky to answer a cliche like "respect must be earned" with a principle "innocent until proven guilty," but principles should trump cliches.

    Although I agree that rights should not end at the schoolhouse gate, the Tinker decision that Cory links to was about speech not search and seizure. The courts have usually sided with the schools when it comes to searching lockers or backbacks because the locker belongs to the school and because the schools act in loco parentis for the students. (Cory is going to have to teach me how to insert italics because the Latin term should be italicized.) At age 53, I don't need a parent, and the cell phone is my property.

    Schools are government institutions and should have to meet the same standards as other government entities: establish probable cause and get a warrant. Given the conservative nature of this state, I'd guess that South Dakota judges probably hand out search warrants with a greater generosity than they had out candy at Halloween.

    At the rate that both public and private employers are going, we'll all be singing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford about owing "our soul to the company store."

    [CAH: italics lesson! Enclose Latin text in <em> tags thus: <em>in loco parentis</em> should produce nicely italicized in loco parentis. You can also do it the old fashioned way and use <i> tags, but Web honchos will tell you they aren't preferable.]

  9. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21

    Respect is earned, is not a cliche it is a fact, something far too many people have forgotten or have hoped would go away.
    Joseph g Thompson

  10. twu 2011.03.21

    I'm not ready to agree that "Respect is earned" is a fact. I choose to believe that every human being deserves my respect on face and can, only through some pretty egregious actions and/or decisions, lose that respect. I'd much rather operate (and, thus, choose to operate) from a paradigm where there isn't some threshold--a threshold that varies from individual to individual and that can be redefined at the whim of any individual--that one must meet to gain respect from another member of our community/society. I might be able to agree with some notion that a person has to "work" to "earn" my admiration or my friendship, but respect should be a basic right, something that can be forfeited in certain compelling instances but not something to be received only as a result of some undefined effort.

  11. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21

    Respect: to treat with honor, esteem, reverence. You are not entitled to respect.

    Courtesy: politeness, civility. Most people are entitled to be treated courteously.

    It requires much effort on a person's part to gain my respect and very little to lose it. It requires very little effort on a person's part to get me to treat them with courtesy and much effort on their part to get me to treat them with less than courtesy.

    Respect is another one of those "words" like hero and honor that we as a society have dumbed down enough so that the true meaning elludes us as a society.

    Joseph G Thompson

  12. Douglas Wiken 2011.03.21

    "Drug" dogs here found beef jerky in a car on the school parking lot a few years ago, but nearly ripped the kid's vehicle to pieces getting to it.

  13. twu 2011.03.21

    Even granting the relatively vaunted definition of "respect" above, I still advocate that at a basic level--and absent some specific violation of community standards--each person I interact with deserves to be honored, esteemed, and/or revered as an individual member of our society. Further, I still would rather operate from a paradigm that starts from a point of respect and only withholds that respect when given a reason to do so (as opposed to working from the paradigm I mention above where others have to work toward some non-articulated and ever-movable threshold to "earn" or "maintain" respect).

    "Courtesy" as defined above is an interesting comparison to "respect." I contend that courtesy is nearly worthless without an underlying respect to motivate it. It's the sort of superficial "Hey, how are ya?" (without enough underlying esteem to actually care about the answer) that allows us to feel like we're being nice and respectful to others without actually having to be nice or respectful to them. If a person has your respect, they will be treated with courtesy. If you treat a person courteously without respecting them, isn't that, at best, avoiding a truthful interaction and, at worst, being deliberately dishonest to someone (certainly not a sign of any kind of respect)?

    I'm not sure whether, in the course of this discussion and in our society in general, the problem is really that "respect" has been "dumbed down" to the point that it isn't meaningful. I would argue that setting up "respect"--even respect that goes so far as esteeming, honoring, and revering the inherent value of our fellow citizens/human beings--as something that is earned, rather than deserved, causes an intended or unintended separation of some ill-defined "elite" (those which are "worthy" of respect) that is apart from and better than those who we might choose to only treat with courtesy. It's those kinds of separations that can be the foundation of the sorts of socio-political rifts that seem frequently to stand in the way of thoughtful debate and productive discourse in society today.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.21

    Fascinating value discussion, gentlemen! Don't let me interrupt too much. I'll simply add that even people for whom I have no respect are still entitled to basic Constitutional protections.

  15. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21

    no, treating someone you do not respect courteously, is merely the sign of someone with manners. Not everyone is worthy of respect.

    Yes Cori, the issue here is rights by our Constitution. If the Constitution protects the rights of the teacher, in this case unlawful search, does not the Constitution also protect the student in the same situation(school). If it applies to one, it applies to the other, and if it doesn't apply to one why should it apply to the other.

    joseph G Thompson

  16. Anne 2011.03.21

    i see more reasons, as suggested by another blogger yesterday, to discourage anyone from going into teaching,

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.21

    Joseph, in your original comment, you hit on perhaps the crux of our agreement. "If you bring it on school property you have no expectations of privacy." That's a scary principle. Imagine if school officials applied that universally to everyone who came to a basketball game or to parent-teacher conferences. If they did, that policy would disappear fast.

    When I refer to different rules for students and teachers, I'm usually thinking of student handbook issues (the student who drinks a beer should sit out basketball games; the coach who drinks a beer need not sit out).

    I can think of an instance when I invaded a student's electronic privacy to enforce school policy. In 1993, one day while I was student-teaching, I looked over one student's shoulder during a test. On the student's graphing calculator screen, I saw a list of the trigonometric identities on which I was testing the class. The identities were supposed to be memorized. The student had created one of the first electronic crib notes.

    "What's that?" I said.

    "Oh! Nothing," he said, quickly sliding the calculator out of sight and pressing a button. I took his test sheet and dinged his grade accordingly. he knew the jig was up and didn't make a fuss. I think he even apologized. Had he made a fuss, I likely would have confiscated the calculator on the spot and searched the memory (all what, 2KB?) for the cribs.

    Now we make clear to students that any devices they may use for the test are subject to instructor's inspection for disallowed materials. Rather than get into this very constitutional question of just how what personal student property I can search, I try to give assignments and assessments where cheating won't help or where no extra devices are needed. I probably wouldn't search a student's phone; I would just declare (as I hope school policy would) that personal phones are off-limits during the school day and confiscate any such equipment made visible in my classroom. I wouldn't touch a single button on it.

    Now Leo has me wondering: the courts say locker searches are o.k., since it's school property. If a teacher keeps personal items in a classroom closet, I assume that space is searchable as well? Now what about cell phones, the items that got this discussion: are there specific situations (like my crib note situation?) where a teacher could justify searching a student phone? And what would be the situations (if any) where a principal could justify searching a teacher's phone?

  18. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.21

    The question remains, why should one class of citizen(student) be subjected to a rule another class of citizen(teacher) is not.

    Further, if the teacher objects to the policy, the teacher is free to quit the job and find another. The student has no choice in the matter because the law requires him/her to be in school.

    You are right, if the school board posted a notice that they were going to inspect everyone possessions before a basketball game, the public would be in an uproar.

    For the record. I have no problem with inspections of anything carried onto school grounds by visitors, students, or staff so long as any contriband found is not used as evidence in a criminal complaint, but is only confiscated with school punishment imposed.

    Joseph G Thompson

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.22

    Now that's an interesting twist: allow the school to violate the Fourth Amendment, but then exclude any evidence found from criminal proceedings, just as would be the case if the cops conducted an improper search. Interesting.

    But Joe, why would you allow the school to conduct such searches in the first place? What's the justification? And would that justification apply to any other institution or business? Shall we empower Bobbi Janke to search the personal effects of anyone dropping by the auditor's office? Should Pat Prostrollo be able to look through customers' papers and billfolds when they set foot on his car lot?

    I struggle briefly with the question of why we would deny children some rights that we don't deny adults. Then I remember: they're children! I don't let my child walk out the door whenever she wants. I place no such restriction on my wife or any other adults who come to my house. The state won't let my daughter drive, vote, or consent to sex, for obvious reasons.

    But those are all positive actions, things she cannot do until she's older. What negative protections, things we say we can't do to others, do we give to adults but not children, and why?

  20. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.22


    That is the problem with finding solutions in the real world, many adults are not rational. They see the bogey man behind every tree trying to steal their children and see crazy kids who are going to blow up a school everywhere. Not saying it won't happen just that the odds are really against it happening.

    Zero tolerance for drugs, a kid gets expelled for having an aspirn. Zero tolerance for guns, a 6 year old kid gets expelled for bringing a toy gun to school. Zero tolerance for knives and an honor student gets expelled because he forgot to leave his scout knife at home.

    We have become a nation of frightened, irrational people for no reason at all. I see it right here in this community.

    As a parent, you are charged with protecting the rights of your children until they reach the age where they can protect themselves. The courts are able to step in when a parent clearly violates a childs rights. For example abuse, medical treatment, or education.

    Got to go, got a Doctor's appt, but we do our children no good at all when we react as frightened, irrational adults because our actions teach them to behave in a frightened, irrational way.

    Joseph G Thompson

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.22

    I agree, Joe: we make too much policy based on fear and irrationality. But I did just think of a complication with what you said about allowing searches but not admitting them as evidence in court. The school administrator's concern would be that he/she couldn't defend that in-school punishment against lawsuits from litigious parents.

  22. Joseph G Thompson 2011.03.22

    You are absolutely correct. The possibility of lawsuits from parents require that schools violate consitutional rights. Rest assured we would not be having this conversation about searching teachers if a teacher came to school and took hostages. Everyone would be screaming because they(teachers) hadn't been searched. This is the world we have created for our children. We should be so proud.

    Joseph G Thompson

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