Students and the Constitution

Pottawatomie v. Earls (2002)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Pottawatomie v. Earls. Dealing with students’ Fourth Amendment protections when in schools, this lesson asks students to assess the Court’s evolving definition of “reasonable” searches with respect to public school students.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Case Background

While the Court has long held that students “do not shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate,” it has also emphasized that students in public school have less of an expectation of privacy than adults. Therefore, what would be considered an unreasonable search if performed by a police officer on an adult, may or may not be considered unreasonable if performed by a public school official on a student.

In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), the Court held that because of the special needs of the school environment, public school officials were not subject to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. They were, however, bound by the amendment’s requirement that searches be “reasonable.”

In Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association (1989), the Court held that drug tests were “searches” subject to Fourth Amendment considerations. The Court was asked to consider the constitutionality of random drug-testing of student athletes in Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995). Citing the diminished expectation of privacy of student athletes, along with the danger of serious injuries when competitors were on drugs, the Court upheld the policy as reasonable.

When the Board of Education of Pottawatomie instituted a policy requiring random drug tests of all students involved in any extra-curricular activity, Lindsay Earls and two other students challenged the policy as unconstitutional.

Key Question

Assess the Court’s evolving definition of “reasonable” searches with respect to public school students.

Directions

Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-M. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-M, as well as your own knowledge of history.

Materials

Documents you will examine:

  1. The Fourth Amendment, 1791
  2. “Nancy Reagan Addressing Conference on Drugs,” 1982
  3. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 1985
  4. Majority Opinion, Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association, 1989
  5. Dissenting Opinion, Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association, 1989
  6. Vernonia School District v. Acton, 1995
  7. Oral Argument, Pottawatomie School Board’s Case, 2002
  8. Oral Argument, Lindsay Earls’s Case, 2002
  9. Majority Opinion (5-4), Board of Education of Pottawatomie v. Earls, 2002
  10. Concurring Opinion, Board of Education of Pottawatomie v. Earls, 2002
  11. Dissenting Opinion, Board of Education of Pottawatomie v. Earls, 2002
  12. “One Nation, Under Surveillance,” 2002
  13. Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Drug Testing in Schools,” 2002

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