TASB Risk Management Fund
INSIDERM

Balancing Student Privacy with School Security

January 22, 2019 Charli Searcy, Kristen Pham, and Melanie Moss

Student privacy and school security should go hand-in-hand as you create and evaluate your emergency operations plans. The new year is a perfect time to ensure balance between these two important responsibilities by reviewing your policies and procedures.

In a recent webinar led by Legal Liability Risk Consultant Charli Searcy and Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss, Fund members learned the best ways to develop and implement security processes that take student privacy into consideration.

When performing annual reviews of emergency management programs, it is important to consider current safety and security trends. That includes looking to best and proven practices, as well as proposed safety and security measures.

School security considerations

When developing and evaluating policies and plans, remember the importance of collaborating with community partners, including law enforcement, fire services, EMS, and emergency management personnel.

Below are some other considerations:

  • Develop all-hazard emergency operations plans
  • Perform regular safety and security audits
  • Train, drill, and exercise
  • Evaluate, review, and revise

It is also worth noting that last May, Governor Abbott announced a school safety and security plan. The plan includes measures such as increasing law enforcement presence on campus, providing incident response training, expanding safety/security committees, increasing mental health programs, and developing programs to monitor social media and possible threats.

Implementing security measures

Many schools are looking at products to help build safe, healthy learning environments for students and staff to thrive. Metal detectors and clear backpacks are a couple of measures being considered and implemented as part of this endeavor. Before choosing either of these methods, review the pros and cons with your team and other stakeholders.

Metal detectors

As with any security measure, there are potential benefits and drawbacks to implementing metal detectors at your school. When it comes to security, metal detectors can serve as a deterrent, reduce the risk of threats, and promote safer schools. Drawbacks include cost, the possibility that metal detectors are inoperable or ineffective, the need to train staff and hire law enforcement or a school resource officer, and the potential for creating an intimidating atmosphere.

From a liability perspective, potential benefits of metal detectors include demonstrating that the school is proactive and possibly reducing liability claims. On a negative note, metal detectors could contribute to an environment in which searches are based on bias or stereotypes.

Clear backpacks

Schools are also looking at the option of implementing clear backpacks to enhance transparency and improve security on campuses. Potential security benefits include making backpack contents easily viewable and reducing the risk of a threat. Drawbacks include cost, visibility of personal hygiene items, and the need for a clear policy about all bag types. In addition, plastic is flammable, which introduces another safety hazard into classrooms.

Like metal detectors, implementing clear backpacks shows that the school is being proactive. Clear backpacks could reduce liability claims. Potential drawbacks include invasion of privacy, equality concerns, and overstepping students’ First Amendment rights (freedom of expression).

Other trending security measures include biometric readers and social media monitoring. Liability concerns include, but are not limited to, privacy invasions and identity theft if compromised by hackers.

Legal liability considerations

Remember student privacy when looking at potential security measures. Some tips to keep in mind include:

  • Review and implement your district’s policies regarding student rights and responsibilities, interrogations, and searches.
  • Establish sound reasons for implementing security measures. You should explain why you want to implement security measures, if an incident has occurred to prompt this need, and how you will ensure searches are not discriminatory.
  • Be sure that parents and students are informed about security measures such as searches and video surveillance.
  • If a search is initiated by an employee, make sure they made specific observations to justify it, had reasonable conclusions supported by observations and facts collected, and explained how the facts provided a basis for suspicion.

Student privacy during searches

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. For schools, there must be reasonable grounds for suspecting a search will result in proof a student has disobeyed school rules or the law. To be determined reasonable, there must be a sound reason for initiating the search. The scope and method of the search must also be reasonably related to the circumstances that prompted the search in the first place. A search conducted by a school official only requires reasonable suspicion and must be based on facts, not a mere feeling or guess.

The Fourth Amendment might apply to the following situations, according to the Center for Public Education:

  • Drug testing students who participate in extracurricular activities
  • Drug-sniffing dog searches on campus
  • Locker searches
  • Metal detector searches
  • Backpack, wallet, cell phone, and personal computer searches
  • Student car searches (on school property)

Example of a search and seizure that may be considered reasonable

A teacher walked into the men’s restroom to find a student smoking what appeared to be a cigarette. The teacher reported it to the principal. When the principal asked the student to empty his pockets, he found nothing. The principal then searched the student’s locker and saw an open pack of cigarettes and a lighter. The Supreme Court ruled that a search and seizure similar to this example was constitutional and based on reasonable suspicion. When determining the reasonableness of a search, the “why” and “how” need to be considered for each situation and must not be based on stereotypes or biases.

Takeaways

The balancing act between safe schools and student privacy requires ongoing planning and evaluation. Below are some key points to keep in mind when you are working on this process:

  • Every school search and seizure should be based on reasonable suspicion.
  • It is important to check that your district has a clear policy on searches that details what is to be searched and how the search will be conducted.
  • Students and parents should also be notified of the district’s policy.
  • Know all of the facts before purchasing security equipment and implementing policies.
  • Get input from stakeholders such as law enforcement, first responders, and legal counsel when considering school security purchases.

Keeping these school security and legal liability matters in mind will help you make the right decisions for your organization. For information about legal liability considerations, contact Legal Liability Risk Consultant Charli Searcy. For information about school security considerations and developing an Emergency Operations Plan, contact Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss. If you are a Fund member interested in listening to the recorded version of the recent webinar, contact TASB Risk Management Risk Solutions.

Tagged: "emergency management", "legal topics"