The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that high school students can be searched for illegal drugs without a warrant if school officials have a reasonable suspicion based on specific facts.
PORTLAND — The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that high school students can be searched for illegal drugs without a warrant if school officials have a reasonable suspicion based on specific facts.
The court said Thursday schools are not held to the higher standard of requiring probable cause for a search if officials believe there is an immediate risk of harm from possession of illegal drugs on school grounds.
The case began with the seizure of marijuana from a Rex Putnam High School student in Portland in 2005 after another student tipped school officials.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Thomas Balmer, the court said schools provide a unique setting, "including the responsibility of protecting students from harm, maintaining order, and fulfilling the schools' educational mission."
The court compared the role of school administrators to police who are allowed to search without a warrant when there is an immediate threat to safety.
"As persons responsible for maintaining a safe learning environment, when school officials perceive there to be an immediate threat to student or staff safety at a school, they must be able to take prompt, reasonable steps to remove that threat," Balmer wrote.
In this case, the court noted school officials were told that the student who was searched had been seen selling marijuana to other students, school records indicated drug problems, and the student's mother told a vice principal over the phone just before the search that the student "probably was holding something."
Balmer said there are limits on student searches, but as with police searches involving safety, "it is not our function to uncharitably second-guess the considered protective actions taken by school officials."
The level of responsibility is higher in schools than other settings because students and adults are confined to a relatively small area where teachers and other school officials are government employees with a duty "to preserve the safety of all students," the court said.
The ruling upheld a juvenile court judge who applied a U.S. Supreme Court standard on school searches because there were no previous Oregon cases that applied.