Isle students should not expect locker privacy


POSTED: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

HAWAII'S school board is nearing a decision on whether to allow random searches of lockers in public schools to reveal any contraband. Ten years after the Columbine massacre in Colorado, the mere possibility of such a search would be worthwhile in deterring use of lockers to hide weapons or illegal substances.

A golden retriever of Interquest Detection Canines of Hawaii is to be introduced this week to student assemblies at Roosevelt and McKinley high schools. The dog is trained to recognize illicit drugs, alcohol and gunpowder and, according to a proposal, could be used to detect contraband in lockers or on students in public areas.

The U.S. Supreme Court was to hear arguments today in a lawsuit brought six years ago by the parents of a then-13-year-old girl who was strip-searched after being suspected of possessing prescription-strength ibuprofen pills. Based on a fellow student's false report, the search obviously violated the girl's right to privacy.

In contrast, the use of a dog to sniff lockers or students themselves randomly in public areas meets legal standards that recognize students' privacy rights, which are limited on school grounds. The Supreme Court has ruled that searches targeted at a particular student must be based on reasonable suspicion that the student has broken a particular rule.

A four-month pilot program in 2007 at three Maui public schools resulted in a dog discovering empty liquor bottles and traces of marijuana in public areas. The dog was not used to sniff students, their lockers or their cars, even though Attorney General Mark Bennett had assured the state Board of Education that random locker searches would pass constitutional scrutiny “;at any time with or without reason or cause.”;

While opponents of locker searches contend they would violate students' Fourth Amendment rights, students should be advised that they cannot expect privacy in their lockers. Awareness that school officials have a master key or lock combinations would eliminate any such expectation and claims to Fourth Amendment protection.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, Hawaii's Constitution specifically guarantees “;the right of the people to privacy.”; Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that a state's right to privacy may be greater than federally provided, a principle applied most notably in abortion-rights cases.

Still, at both federal and state levels, privacy rights must be anchored to the expectation of privacy, and such an expectation is unwarranted if lockers — school property — are accessible to school officials. If there is no expectation of privacy, there is no constitutional protection.