KBS Reference Desk: Metal Detectors in Schools

Q: Our District is exploring options to increase security on our campuses, including (possibly) the use of metal detectors. We are looking at both walk through and hand-held detector “wands.” What are the legal risks for using metal detectors generally, and what issues should we be aware of?

A: Using either type of metal detector on school district property is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment and, thus, must be reasonable in light of the circumstances surrounding the search.

Under both the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution, students have the right to be free from “unreasonable” searches and seizures by government actors (i.e., public schools). School district searches can either be personal or administrative. “Personal” searches are conducted on a select student (or specific group of students) based upon “individualized suspicion” of wrongdoing. Alternatively, “administrative” searches are conducted objectively to an entire school, campus or classroom, or to a randomly-selected group of students based on a general policy or safety measure (e.g., random drug testing of all students who participate in extracurricular activities). Texas courts have yet to tackle the issue of metal detectors in public schools but have upheld their use as “administrative” searches in alternative learning centers based on the public entity’s “interest in maintaining a safe and disciplined learning environment in a setting at high risk for drugs and violence.”

The determinative factor to sustain legal challenge, therefore, will be the purpose of the search – not necessarily whether the metal detector is wand or stand alone. While a wand may appear more intrusive, if used with multiple students in the same fashion without regard to suspected misconduct, a wand search could, at least in theory, pass muster as an appropriate administrative search. Wands are typically used, however, as a supplement to a stand-alone machine (following an alert) or for personal searches when reasonable suspicion exists that the student possesses a prohibited (metal) item, such as a firearm or other weapon. As such, it is critical that district employees be specifically trained on the legal standards for “individualized suspicion,” which require that the search be both reasonable at its inception (i.e. actual evidence of possible policy violation) and reasonable in scope (i.e. metal detector will confirm violation) in order for the search to be considered constitutional.

If your district is considering the purchase and use of metal detectors on one or more of its campuses, we recommend that you work with your school attorney in development of administrative procedures, staff training and required amendments to policy FNF (LOCAL).