The passage of HR 5295 was an expedited affair. On September 19, the Student and Teacher Safety Act of 2006 went to the floor of the House of Representatives without a hearing or vote in committee and was passed by a voice vote of the two dozen or so Representatives in the chamber at the time. “School officials should have the authority to handle potentially dangerous situations and take the steps necessary to intervene when the safety of our children is in jeopardy,” said House majority leader John Boehner, praising Kentucky Republican Geoff Davis, the bill’s author, in a statement released the same day. But because there was no roll call, there is no way of knowing whether Boehner or the seventeen Republicans who joined Davis as co-sponsors actually turned up for the vote.
The legislation would mandate that all school districts adopt policies empowering searches for weapons and narcotics. Those that fail to do so would be stripped of funds from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 2002, used by schools for programs to combat drugs and violence. Supporters say the law is necessary to keep drugs away from children and to address “the recent trend in escalating school violence.” But critics claim the bill is a political stunt designed to make Republicans look tough on school safety and to give Davis a legislative achievement to tout in his close re-election race against Democratic challenger Ken Lucas. A broad group of opponents–including
Congressional Democrats, the National Parent Teacher Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Civil Liberties Union and Students for Sensible Drug Policy–argue the bill is unnecessary and may jeopardize students’ constitutional rights.
On the morning of November 5, 2003, police officers burst into Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, forcing students to the ground at gunpoint and putting some as young as 14 in handcuffs as a drug-sniffing dog tore through their book bags. The raid, initiated by the principal on suspicion that a particular student was suspected of dealing marijuana in the hallways, went ahead even though the student was known to be absent from school that day. No drugs or weapons were found in the sweep of nearly 150 students, of whom more than two-thirds were African-American at a school where African-Americans make up less than a quarter of the student body. Caught on school surveillance and police cameras, the incident provoked a national outcry including a demonstration led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Civil liberties advocates fear that the Davis bill will encourage similar tactics. “The intent here is to broaden the powers that school officials have to search students,” says Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “One of the foundational aspects of the Fourth Amendment is individualized suspicion–that you have done wrong, not that wrong has been done…. This legislation is quite mischievous because it purports to tell school officials that they can search whole groups of students.”
During the floor debate on his bill, Davis denied this charge: “This act does not issue a blank check to anyone to conduct random, unfounded or mass searches. It does not change the Fourth Amendment standards on search and seizure.” But Democrats disagree. “We must do everything possible to keep our schools safe and drug free,” says Ohio Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich. “But we cannot suspend the Constitution.” (Davis’s office did not respond to requests for comment).
Supporters say the bill provides much-needed clarity. “The legislation simply clarifies what’s already in the case law and gives a floor to what kind of policies school districts should have,” says Shilpa Reddy, lobbyist for the National Education Association, which endorsed the bill. Conversely, Steven Crawford, superintendent of schools for Byng, Oklahoma, believes those behind the legislation are simply posturing. “We already have policies and requirements at a state level that are thorough and complete. We don’t need the strong-arming of the federal government on this issue,” says Crawford. “This is just a hot-button topic of the day for them. School shootings are in the newspapers, so they think ‘we’ll make ’em do something’…. But schools already go to great lengths to maintain safety. Most schools are safer than Wal-Mart.”