First reported 7/23/2010 2:15 p.m.

Oak Park and River Forest High School has modified its student handbook to add language concerning the school’s right to search students on campus who are suspected of carrying drugs or other items that violate the school’s Code of Conduct.

The change was suggested by building administrators and approved by the District 200 Board of Education on July 15. Each year the school reviews and revises its conduct code and school procedures. The update concerning student searches was an addition to the handbook.

According to the new language, OPRF staff can request a search if there’s “reasonable suspicion” that the student is breaking school rules or the law. Additional language was added to ensure that searches are not conducted without merit.

The high school already had authority to conduct searches; the new language was added to provide further clarification for parents, officials said. At the July 15 board meeting, a lengthy discussion ensued among members and administration concerning a student’s rights related to searches.

Sharon Patchak-Layman, a board member who voted against the revisions, didn’t believe searching a student’s person was covered in the Illinois School Code.

“What the school code says is that you have an opportunity to do searches if it includes things that are part of the school, like lockers and desks, etc. It does not, to me, read that you can look at personal belongings if it includes a backpack, or a purse, somebody’s pockets – anything that they personally have,” Patchak-Layman said.

Supt. Steven Isoye, however, cited language in the state code that allows searching a student in certain instances. The code, he said, states that students have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” concerning their personal effects within certain school areas. The superintendent added that schools can request law enforcement to help with a search, including to lockers or campus parking lots.

“That is saying that it’s not just the school officials going there but we can call the police or other law enforcement to be with us,” Isoye said.

Dietra Millard, the board’s president, brought up an example of a student suspected of having marijuana in his pocket and whether a search would be warranted. But board member John Allen noted that having a suspicion is not actually knowing if the student is carrying an illicit substance.

“You don’t know, so the question is, what gives you the right or reason to look,” he asked. Allen, who is a lawyer, cautioned that there needs to be a clear and specific reason given for searching a student.

Board member Amy McCormack gave an example of a student with what looked like a crack pipe in their pocket; asking if that would be a reasonable suspicion. Allen said yes in that clear instance.

McCormack said she’d also prefer the school to bring in police when in doubt, and always if it involves searching a student’s vehicle.

Phillip Prale, Dist. 200 assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, cited a Supreme Court ruling from the 1980s that gave schools the right to search a student based on reasonable suspicion.

“It is a very difficult threshold, but it is not hard and fast with reasonable suspicion,” he said concerning searches. “But if we can articulate that and specifically what led us to that search, our staff does have the authority to conduct it in an appropriate way.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

New language on breathalyzers, drug tests

The school board on July 15 also approved an update to the student handbook concerning using breathalyzers and conducting drug tests on students.

The added language states that school personnel can administer a breathalyzer for alcohol or non-invasive drug tests for marijuana if a student is suspected of being under the influence of either. Such tests are covered under the Illinois School Code, according to the approved changes.

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