Here, we provide basic information about when K-12 public school administrators or law enforcement officers—including school resource officers—can search public school students or their belongings, or question them about their conduct.
Students should know that they may be searched if they bring prohibited items to school. In general, school officials have more leeway than police officers to question or search students and their belongings. Students have the right to refuse to answer any questions about their conduct—no matter who asks those questions. Refusing to answer questions, at least until the student has consulted with a parent, trusted adult, or attorney, may reduce the risk of a student saying something that could be used against them.
What is a search?
The legal definition of “search” is a “government intrusion on a reasonable expectation of privacy.” In other words, a search occurs when someone who works for the government, including public school officials or law enforcement officers, interferes with things that you reasonably can expect to be private. The Supreme Court has said that public school students have an expectation of privacy in their bodies—and in personal possessions they bring to school, such as backpacks, clothes, cell phones, and purses.
When can school officials search students or their belongings?
School officials, such as a principal or teacher, cannot search students or their belongings whenever they want. However, officials need only a “reasonable suspicion” that the student is in possession of something forbidden by law or school rules. This is a lower standard than that which applies to police (discussed below), because the job of school officials is to enforce school rules and protect students, not to investigate crime.
What is a “reasonable suspicion”?
Reasonable suspicion exists when a school official has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search will uncover evidence that the student violated the law or school rules. The official must have such grounds before conducting any search. Their reasoning must be based on something more than a hunch, rumor, or unreliable tip. Reasonable grounds may arise based on the official’s own observations or information received from other students, staff, or parents—if that information is specific enough to be credible.
What can school officials search?
In addition to having a reasonable basis to search a student, a school official must have a reasonable basis to search each item that belongs to the student. They may only search an item if there is a reasonable connection between it and the school rule that the student supposedly violated. For example, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that it was unreasonable to search a student’s shoe based on a violation of the school’s attendance policy.
Can school officials search student desks and lockers?
The scope of the school’s power to search a specific student’s locker or desk may depend on the school policy about who controls the locker or desk. For example, the school’s student handbook, code, or policy might say that students have a right to privacy in their lockers. In this case, students may reasonably expect that lockers will be searched only if the school has a reasonable suspicion that something prohibited is there. However, if the policy is that the locker or desk is not private and is controlled by the school, the school may be able to search it at any time, even without reasonable suspicion.
When can school officials search for controlled substances or vapes?
Massachusetts courts have said that if a school official smells an unlawful substance, such as marijuana, coming from a student, sufficient grounds exist to search the student for the prohibited substance. If the school has a rule against using electronic cigarettes or “vapes,” smells linked to vapes may create reasonable suspicion for a search. In addition, reasonable suspicion may be established by a credible report from someone (such as a teacher or fellow student) who says they saw a student with a prohibited substance or device.
When can school officials search students’ personal cell phones?
School officials can search a cell phone only if they have a reasonable suspicion that something in the phone is relevant to a violation of a school rule or law. For instance, in a case where school administrators reasonably suspected that a student possessed drugs, they were only justified in conducting a physical search for the drugs, and were not justified in searching his cellphone. On the other hand, if the school reasonably suspects that a student is using a phone to violate school policies, such as to engage in prohibited bullying, a search may be deemed justified.
When can school officials search a student’s body?
A search by a school official cannot be excessively intrusive into a student’s personal privacy. The type and intrusiveness of a reasonable search will depend on what officials are looking for, along with other circumstances such as the student’s age and the seriousness of the alleged violation. Because of their extreme intrusion into a student’s personal privacy, strip searches require a specific suspicion and supporting facts that indicate there is hidden contraband on the student’s body or in their underwear. For example, in one case, a strip search of a thirteen-year-old girl was found to be unreasonable because there was no reason to believe that, even if she possessed drugs, they were hidden on her body.
Can schools use metal detectors or conduct school-wide searches without individualized, reasonable suspicion?
Both of these forms of general security-based searches are legal so long as all students are subject to them. Likewise, random searches of only some students are legal if the school has specific, safety-related reasons or other special circumstances for conducting them. These searches must be truly random and not single out specific students without reasonable suspicion.
Can a student refuse to be searched?
A student can say they object to a search, but a student should never use physical resistance. Although a student’s objection does not prevent the search from going forward, clearly saying they do not agree to the search may support a later ruling by a court that the search was not justified. Even if a student objects to a search, officials can continue to try to get the student to agree to the search. A student should be very cautious about expressly agreeing to a search, because if the student does consent, things found during the search can likely be used against the student in court or a disciplinary proceeding, even if the search was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
A student can always request that a parent or another adult be present before a search is performed. Even if the request is not granted, having made the request may help establish that the circumstances of the search were not reasonable.
When can police officers search students or their belongings at school?
Any search conducted by a police officer must be justified by “probable cause” and, unless there is an emergency, supported by a warrant from a judge. This is a much higher standard than the “reasonable suspicion” standard that applies to school officials because police officers can charge students with crimes. Probable cause means that the police have a substantial basis to believe that a crime has been committed and that the search will find evidence of the crime.
In Massachusetts, police may not seize and search a student’s cellphone unless they have information that some “particularized evidence” related to the crime at issue will be found in the device. A search based on a more general hunch or suspicion that something incriminating will be found on the phone is not enough.
While police officers generally need probable cause to search a student’s body, if they reasonably suspect that a student is armed and dangerous, they are allowed to do a “pat-frisk” of the outer layer of the student’s clothes and body. If the pat-frisk confirms possession of something that may be a weapon, police may justifiably seek a warrant or, in emergencies, engage in a more intrusive search without a warrant.
What standard applies to searches by “school resource officers”?
Under Massachusetts law, school resource officers (SROs) are members of law enforcement who have been appointed by the chief of police to serve in schools for safety and security purposes. The statute does not authorize SROs to enforce school conduct or disciplinary rules, and a model agreement created by a state commission recognizes that SROs may not perform disciplinary duties. SROs are therefore subject to the same standards as police.
What can a student do if school officials or police question them about their conduct?
Students have a right to refuse to answer questions. Students may be subject to disciplinary consequences for not cooperating but, depending on school policy, the penalty for that may be less than confessing to other misconduct. Refusing to answer questions (at least until the student can get advice from a trusted adult) may prevent a student from saying something that could be used to support a finding of misconduct or a criminal charge.
Must students be told that they have a right to be silent and to talk to an attorney?
If questioning happens without any police involvement, school officials generally have the right to question students without informing them of any right to remain silent or to consult a trusted adult or an attorney.
If a police officer or SRO is present and a student is in custody (i.e., not free to leave), a student must be told that they have a right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in court, and that they have a right to a lawyer. These are called Miranda rights. If the location and mood of the questioning make the student feel unable to leave, that is an indication that the student is in custody and should be read their Miranda rights before being questioned. A student can ask if they are free to leave and if the answer is not clearly “yes,” the student is likely in custody. If Miranda rights are not given, this could be used in later proceedings to challenge the legality of the questioning. Whether or not Miranda rights are read, a student has a right not to answer questions.
When must a trusted adult be present for police questioning?
Massachusetts follows an “interested adult” rule. This requires that students under 14 years old who are in custody have a parent or other interested adult present when Miranda rights are read and before police questioning begins. This ensures that the adult is able to help the child understand what is going on and how to protect themselves from saying something that could be used against them. An interested adult might also help the student assert their right not to answer questions until they have spoken to an attorney.
If the student is over 14 years old, school officials or police must tell the student they have a right to have a parent or other interested adult present when their rights are explained and before police question them. It is generally wise for a student to ask that a parent or other interested adult be present before any questioning occurs. If the student makes a request to have an adult present, the reading of Miranda rights must wait and no questioning can happen until the interested adult arrives. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has indicated that an adult will often have to be present for statements to be admissible in court, even if the student has declined to have an adult present. If Miranda rights are read and the student answers questions without an interested adult being present, the government will have to prove in any criminal case that the student fully understood their right to remain silent. Whether or not a trusted adult is present, a student has a right not to answer questions.
Created December 2022
 New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
 Commonwealth v. Damian D., 434 Mass. 725, 730 (2001).
 Commonwealth v. Lawrence L., 439 Mass. 817 (2003).
 G.C. v. Owensboro Pub. Sch., 711 F.3d 623, 633 (6th Cir. 2013).
 Gallimore v. Henrico County Sch. Bd., 38 F. Supp. 3d 721, 725 (E.D. Va. 2014).
 Jackson v. McCurry, 762 Fed. Appx. 919, 927 (11th Cir. 2019).
 See Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 376-77 (2009).
 See Commonwealth v. White, 475 Mass. 583, 589-90 (2016).
 See Commonwealth v. Silva, 366 Mass. 402, 408 (1974).
 G.L. c. 71, §37P.
 Memorandum from the Sch. Res. Officer Memorandum of Understanding (SRO-MOU) Rev. Comm. (2022) https://www.mass.gov/model-school-resource-officer-memorandum-of-underst....
 See Commonwealth v. Alfonso A., 438 Mass. 372, 381 (2003).