Teaching Supreme Court Cases: The Role of the Fourth Amendment in Schools

This blog and the accompanying resource are part of a Shaped monthly series providing teachers for Grades 6–12 with downloadable U.S. history classroom resources and discussion topics.

What rights does a school have to search a student's backpack, purse, or other personal property? The Supreme Court case New Jersey v. T.L.O., decided in 1985, aimed to answer that very question and continues to impact students in school settings today. 

The story began when a girl—who was a juvenile at the time, which is why she went by her initials during this case—was accused of smoking in a school restroom, which she denied doing. But the principal went through her purse and discovered cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia along with materials suggesting she may have been dealing drugs. She was charged in juvenile court.

T.L.O. argued that the school was violating her Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unreasonable search and seizure of her belongings. This raised important questions: Did the school officials have probable cause—more than just mere suspicion—to search through her purse? Where must schools draw the line between upholding students' privacy and the expectation of discipline? The Supreme Court ruled, by a 6–3 decision, that the school's search was reasonable and not a violation of the law. According to the U.S. Courts website, the court also ruled that primary and secondary school students shouldn't have the same level of search and seizure protection as adults.

New Jersey v. T.L.O. Lesson Plan

Have your students learn about the long-term impact of New Jersey v. T.L.O. and the details behind this important case with the infographic and supplemental questions below. This classroom resource is available for download as a PDF.

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Learn more about HMH Social Studies, including the Judicial Inquiries program for middle and high school students to study 25 landmark Supreme Court cases that continue to impact their lives.

Read more blogs about teaching Supreme Court cases, including:

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