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I am a girl attending a boarding high school in the US. In June, some students who returned to the dorm early saw some male teachers exiting their rooms. They reportedly ran back to the school building without answering any questions when they saw the students. That night, multiple students shared that their drawers were seemingly searched and in some cases underwear and other things were missing.

In the monthly school meeting the search became the main topic. Eventually a high-ranking teacher attempted to clarify what happened. He claimed that they "had suspicion" that someone was hiding illegal firearms in their room, but they could not narrow it down so they had to search all the rooms, both the boys' and the girls'. They declined to explain any further on the reasoning behind the suspicion and merely added they reported it to the police and received permission. The session was then dismissed much earlier than usual.

The speaker was visibly shaking so I doubted that was the real reason. The distrust only grew when we contacted the local police and an officer told us that they never received such report from our school.

The rhetoric has changed ever since. Here is a non-exhaustive list of excuses they came up to cover up the situation.

  1. Local police authorized search due to firearm suspicions - debunked, never alerted the police
  2. A majority of all students agreed to the search - debunked, no school-wide poll
  3. The student council unanimously agreed to the search - debunked, no such topic was discussed
  4. A majority of all parents agreed to the search - debunked, no such notice to parents
  5. A majority of parents in the school board agreed to the search - debunked, never happened
  6. The teachers were substituting dorm workers on vacation to fix dorm equipment - debunked, workers were present

The list goes on and on and I find it pathetic that they are still not apologizing even though two months have passed and we are in vacation. I wonder, had at least one of the excuses listed above been true, would that have validated male teachers from intruding our private space? If our parents or our student representatives agree, can they really enter our rooms even though we were never asked nor notified about it?

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    Is this a public or private school? What state? How old are the students? Aug 5, 2023 at 13:43
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    If we dismiss firearms, then what is the suspected agenda of the search?
    – Steve
    Aug 6, 2023 at 9:48
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    It sounds like you need to talk to a lawyer and get proper advice on your situation. If the school keeps making up reasons why those two male teachers entered the girls' dorm, and then changing them when those reasons turn out to be false, then it's pretty likely the school doesn't have a justifiable reason and that they consider their lack of justifiable reason to be a problem for themselves. So there is a decent chance that the teachers were doing something they weren't allowed to do, and the school is lying to avoid liability. However, if you take them to court then they can't lie.
    – kaya3
    Aug 6, 2023 at 17:20
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    @kaya3-supportthestrike "However, if you take them to court then they can't lie" Well of course they can lie in court (and people do), it's just harder to get away with it and the consequences would be more serious. Aug 6, 2023 at 18:29
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    One way to get some traction to this is that the students who experienced missing items report the theft to the police. Depending on the jurisdiction, missing underwear from an underaged student's room might fall on the sex crimes division.
    – Pete B.
    Aug 7, 2023 at 13:45

4 Answers 4

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A private school in the US is not bound by the 4th Amendment requirement for searches to be "reasonable", just as parents do not need a search warrant to search your room. Instead, limitations would arise from contract law. This typically means that per the contract whereby you can go to that school, you agree to certain things (as do they). This may or may not include the power for a teacher to conduct a surprise inspection.

It just depends on what is said in the contract regarding dorm room searches. Typically, adjudication of this type of matter is left to parental outrage rather than courts, unless there is a clear violation of the contract terms.

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    It may well be that the contract between the parents and the school matter.
    – o.m.
    Aug 5, 2023 at 18:13
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    @o.m. the contract between the parents and the the school is likely the only contract. Nothing in this answer suggests that the student is a party to any contract.
    – phoog
    Aug 5, 2023 at 21:02
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    The enrollment contract that was signed very likely doesn't have every single policy in it, but instead incorporates the student handbook and has a clause for changes at their discretion.
    – user71659
    Aug 6, 2023 at 1:48
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    @user71659 in my experience that is not how private school contracts work. Rather, the parents agree that the school will enforce some rules and the children are bound by the rules because their parents agreed to it.
    – phoog
    Aug 6, 2023 at 6:46
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    I'm not familiar with all private school contracts, but I'm pretty sure they don't explicitly authorise confiscating underwear from the students and subsequently covering the theft by usurpating the local police's authority.
    – Stef
    Aug 6, 2023 at 22:32
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in some cases underwear and other things were missing.

This is a bigger problem than merely entering dorms. Theft is unambiguously a crime. Additionally, theft of underwear, especially from underage girls, is likely to be a sexual offence (depending on where you are, of course). Proving it may be difficult though.

If your parents agreed to the search, of course, you have no authority to complain. However I would be frankly shocked if there was not near-unanimous protest by parents at this. This is more likely the route you need to go down. A mass protest by parents at a fee-paying school tends to get the attention of the board!

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Privacy

Between people, there exists a common law right to privacy, independent of the quasi-constitutional right of people against the government.

In this case, the specific tort the school has committed is intrusion on seclusion:

The elements of an intrusion on seclusion claim are:

  • The defendant intentionally intruded upon the plaintiff's seclusion or private concerns.

  • The intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

  • The intrusion caused the plaintiff anguish and suffering.

There is no requirement that the defendant disclosed any facts about the plaintiff, as in a public disclosure claim. Liability attaches to the intrusion itself.

You will note that having a good reason for the intrusion is not a defence.

Defences

Permission

There is no tort if the person (or their legal guardian) consents to the search. Such a consent might be in the contract between the student (or their parents as guardians) and the school.

The consent may be in general terms such as allowing the school to “take reasonable steps” to enforce school rules or protect the health and safety of students, staff, and visitors. Whether what the did was in line with the contract would depend on the circumstances - it could go either way.

In loco parentis

Notwithstanding the contract, a school stands in loco parentis (in the place of the parent) for any minor children in its care are control. So for anyone under the age of 18, the school can consent to the search on behalf of the student, just like a parent could.

Health and Safety legislation

There is almost surely a state law that imposes a duty on the school to provide a safe environment. Such a law may make it legal for the school to conduct a search for a firearm without needing permission.

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    Your reasoning may be united-kingdom specific.
    – Spencer
    Aug 7, 2023 at 0:25
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    @Spencer The linked article on Intrusion on Seclusion says that it is a U.S. common law tort.
    – reirab
    Aug 7, 2023 at 14:38
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In the UK at least, boarding house parents generally operate in loco parentis of the biological parents. This is usually contractually established as part of the attendance contract.

This gives the boarding house parents most of the rights the biological parents would have within the context of the boarding house. This can even extend outside of this context in-extremis if the parents can't be contacted (for example if consent for emergency surgery is needed).

This, without a doubt, extends to conducting searches of students' dorms with, or without, their consent.


That being said, if we take the events as you describe them, this sounds extremely suspect. I'd be looking to raise this with school governance as this sort of "search" sounds like it would clearly be against school policy.

It is also unclear whether the staff-members in question would be the ones in-loco parentis. Unless they were the house parents, I sincerely doubt it.

The missing underwear would also be seemingly theft. While the house-parents would have the right to confiscate property, this should usually be logged, placed in a safe, and returned to the student/parents of the student at the first opportunity (likely the next time they are going home or after a punishment period had expired). I also can't see any justifiable reason for confiscating underwear...

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