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Balancing Student Privacy With School Security

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Student privacy and school security should go hand-in-hand as you create and evaluate your emergency operations plans. When performing annual reviews of emergency management programs, consider current safety and security trends. That includes looking to best and proven practices, as well as proposed safety and security measures. The goal is to protect students and reduce your risk of liability associated with privacy violations.

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 plan
  • Include hazard-specific and functional annexes in your plan
  • Perform regular safety and security audits
  • Train, drill, and exercise
  • Evaluate, review, and revise

Pro tip: Compliance is critical when it comes to school security. Make sure your district fulfills its responsibilities under the law

Implementing security measures

Many schools are considering metal detectors and clear backpacks to strengthen security. Before you choose, 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 in schools. 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 to oversee metal detectors, 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, so your liability risk could decrease. 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.

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 school official initiates a search, the search and its scope must be reasonable.

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 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 justified the search. A search conducted by a school official requires reasonable suspicion and must be based on more than a mere feeling or guess.

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:

  • Every school search and seizure must 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.
  • Notify students and parents about the district’s policy.
  • Know all 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. 

Have Safety and Security or Emergency Management Questions? 

Members with Auto, Liability, Property, and Workers’ Compensation coverage can request training and support from Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss at 800-482-7276, x2868 or melanie.moss@tasb.org.

Members with Liability coverage can request training and support from Legal Liability Risk Consultant Charli Searcy at 800-482-7276, x1137 or charli.searcy@tasb.org.

Charli Searcy headshot
Charli Searcy

Charli Searcy joined TASB Risk Management Services as the legal liability risk consultant in 2018. She provides guidance to Fund members on student- and employment-related risks such as bullying, discrimination, sexual misconduct, and compliance with Titles IX, VI, and VII.

Searcy previously served as a judicial clerk before practicing as an attorney in Mississippi.

Melanie Moss headshot
Melanie Moss

Melanie Moss joined TASB Risk Management Services as an emergency management and school security consultant in 2013. She helps members develop comprehensive emergency management programs and understand their regulatory responsibilities.

Moss began her career in emergency management in 2006, serving as the public information and crisis communications coordinator for Williamson County, where she provided support to school districts in Williamson and Travis Counties.

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