Under Washington law, if a school principal or other school employee has a reasonable suspicion to search a student he or she has the right to do so. However, a law-enforcement officer who is serving as a school resource officer cannot search a student without probable cause.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee listened to testimony Friday about a resolution that – if passed by the Legislature and approved by a vote of the people – would restore the reasonable-suspicion standard under which school resource officers are allowed to search students, which is the same standard afforded to school staff. Senate Joint Resolution 8203 is sponsored by Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.
“This resolution would simply restore to a police officer, serving as a school resource officer, the right to search a student – authority that was taken away by a recent state Supreme Court decision,” Carrell said. “They would be considered no different from a school employee who already has that right, and they would take a huge load off teachers and principals who are not trained to the level of a professional law-enforcement officer.”
If a student tells a teacher that he or she saw another student put drugs into a locker, that teacher can inform the principal who can then search the student and the locker under the reasonable-suspicion standard. However, under the probable-cause standard, a school resource officer would have to physically observe the student with the drugs – not just a brown paper sack, but the actual drugs themselves – in order to detain and search the student.
“When I was a teacher I was present during the search of a student by the school’s principal,” Carrell continued. “That search uncovered a weapon and the student was punished appropriately for the time. And if the information that generated a reasonable suspicion for the principal had instead gone to a school resource officer, that officer would have been powerless to do anything until probable cause – a much higher standard – was established.”
During testimony it was pointed out that school resource officers are, in fact, police officers who undergo the same training as any other law enforcement official. Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, noted that a police officer is unlikely to be chosen to serve as a school resource officer until he or she has spent three to five years working the streets.
“Parents expect their children to be safe in schools, and it’s our duty to ensure an environment that is conducive to that,” Carrell added. “I believe any parent would trust a badge-carrying police officer at least as much as they trust a school official – and probably much more, which is why the state should restore the less-restrictive search standard to school resource officers.”