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Two Rulings Related to School Detention: (1) Detention w/o Notification & (2) Detention by SRO

Tim McClure

Detention w/o Notification OK

In the first case, Wofford v. Evans, 390 F.3d 318, (4th Circuit 2004), school officials twice detained a 10-year old after her classmates told their teacher that the girl, M.D., had brought a gun to school. Students at Colonial Elementary School in Botetourt County, Va., reported to their teacher that they had seen M.D. in possession of a gun at school. The teacher immediately relayed the information to the assistant principal, Erika Rosa, who located M.D. and took her to the assistant principal’s office. Ms. Rosa interviewed M.D., who denied the allegations, and searched M.D.’s belongings. Ms. Rosa did not find a gun. Ms. Rosa then escorted M.D. to the bus stop and ended her investigation for that day.

The following Monday, a student reported that he had seen M.D. discard a gun at the edge of the school property the previous Wednesday. Ms. Rosa and the principal, Ms. Evans, again brought M.D. to the administrative offices for questioning. They also called the police. Three detectives arrived and questioned M.D. about the allegations. M.D. asked to have her mother with her during questioning and the officials denied her request. According to the adults involved, the questioning lasted about 15 minutes. M.D. said that she was questioned for about 90 minutes. No gun was ever located and Jennifer Wofford, M.D.’s mother, was not notified until the police had left the campus.

Wofford and M.D. filed suit against Evans, Rosa, the Botetourt County School Board and other unknown officers of the county sheriff’s department. They pressed several constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The issues the court most seriously treated were their assertion that the school’s disciplinary procedures violated Wofford’s right to due process (her right to the care, custody and control of her child) under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court also closely scrutinized the claim that school officials and police had seized M.D. in violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure.

In its analysis, the court said that the school did not violate Wofford’s rights. In contrast to cases in which the government permanently and unconstitutionally terminated a parent’s rights, Wofford’s parental rights were unaffected. The court noted that, “at all times during the investigation, M.D. remained on school property, under the auspices of school administrators. The Constitution does not impose a duty of parental notification before the pupil’s disciplinary detainment while such school guardianship persists.”

The court further held that the temporary seizure of M.D’s person while school officials and police investigated the reports of a gun on school property was not unconstitutional. The court cited the landmark case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a school official’s search of a student’s possessions should be based only on reasonable suspicion and not probable cause, a higher standard. The court also said that T.L.O. required a school official’s search to be justified at its inception and reasonable in its scope.

In Wofford, the court found that school officials and police had complied with the rules set forth in T.L.O. and were justified in detaining M.D. long enough to investigate what appeared to be valid information. The court said that Ms. Rosa detained M.D. no longer than necessary to address the allegations and confirm that she had no gun on her person or in her schoolroom desk on Wednesday. Likewise, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, government officials detained M.D. only “until they had satisfactorily determined that the school’s environs contained no handgun. They did not, therefore, violate her rights under the Fourth Amendment.”

The court concluded: “School officials must have the leeway to maintain order on school premises and secure a safe environment in which learning can flourish. Over-constitutionalizing disciplinary procedures can undermine educators’ ability to best attain these goals. Imposing a rigid duty of parental notification or a per se rule against detentions of a specified duration would eviscerate the ability of administrators to meet the remedial exigencies of the moment. The Constitution does not require such a result.”

SRO Detention Approved

In the second case, which occurred after Wofford, but in the same federal circuit, involved a student at the Kennedy Learning Center in Forsyth County, N.C., who was involved in a fight on school property. An administrator investigating the fracas notified school resource officer Deputy S.L. Barr of the sheriff’s department that he was looking for T.B. in connection with the incident and asked the deputy to detain her if she were located. Within an hour of the fight, the deputy encountered T.B. and her older sister and attempted to detain T.B. The sisters resisted the deputy’s effort to detain T.B. and the deputy had to struggle with the two to take T.B. into custody. T.B. and her sister battered the deputy, were arrested and subsequently found by a court to be delinquent. They appealed, alleging that the deputy was without legal authority to detain T.B. and, as such, her arrest was unlawful and their cases should be dismissed. The appellate court did not agree.

The court cited the aforementioned Wofford case and said: “Recently, the Fourth Circuit extended T.L.O.‘s reasonableness standard to the context of detainment of a student, tantamount to seizure under the Fourth Amendment, stating that: ‘It would be an odd state of affairs to tie school officials’ hands merely because fulfillment of this mandate requires the detention, not the inspection, of a pupil. We thus address appellants’ claim of illegal seizure under the rubric announced in T.L.O.’”

The court went on to say: “…the T.L.O. standard governs searches conducted by resource officers working ‘in conjunction with’ school officials, where these officers are primarily responsible to the school district rather than the local police department.”

The court found that Deputy Barr was acting in conjunction with the school administrator because he had communicated with the administrator about the incident and it was his intent all along to merely locate T.B. and deliver her to the administrator. The court found that “practicality demands that a school administrator must be able to rely on some autonomy by a resource officer in conducting an investigation on school premises, and we believe this necessarily includes an officer’s ability to detain a student outside the presence of an administrator for the purpose of presenting them (sic) to an administrator.”

Ultimately the court found that Deputy Barr lawfully detained T.B. It went on to say that the T.B. and her sister’s resistance and assaults on Deputy Barr were without legal justification. Accordingly, the court denied the sisters’ motion to suppress.


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