Searching students and confiscating items
Detailed laws were introduced in 2014 giving teachers in state and integrated schools limited powers to search students’ clothing and bags in some situations and to confiscate items from them. However, the students themselves can’t be searched, and neither can their clothing while they’re still wearing it.
Teacher’s power to order student to hand over an item
A teacher can require you to hand over an item if they believe on reasonable grounds that it’s something likely to endanger anyone’s safety or to have a negative or disruptive effect on the school’s learning environment. The teacher can only do this if you have the item in clear view or if they have reasonable grounds to think you’re hiding it in your pockets or somewhere else about you, or in a bag or container.
The teacher can’t search you directly for the item or use any physical force.
If you refuse to hand over the item, the school can take reasonable disciplinary steps against you.
Teacher’s power to search clothing and bags for harmful items
Schools have limited powers to search your clothing and bags, but only if they think you have something harmful. An item is considered “harmful” if it poses an immediate threat to anyone’s safety, including their emotional safety.
If a teacher believes on reasonable grounds that you have something harmful and you’ve refused to hand it over, the teacher can require you to:
- take off any outer clothing you’re wearing (including a coat, jacket, jumper or cardigan)
- take off your shoes and socks (but not tights or stockings)
- hand over the bag or other container.
The teacher can then search the clothing, footwear, bag or container. The teacher can’t search any clothing while you’re still wearing it.
Whether or not the teacher finds anything, they have to immediately return your clothing, footwear, bag or container to you.
What does “reasonable grounds” mean?
The teacher doesn’t need to be absolutely certain you have the item in order to have a “reasonable” belief. What’s reasonable will depend on the context, and also on the type of item the teacher thinks you have. Reasonable grounds can be based, for example, on information from other students. But it wouldn’t be reasonable for the teacher to make assumptions based on what you’ve done in the past. That means even if they have found a harmful item on you before, they must not use this as grounds for searching your clothes or belongings if they have no other evidence.
My school has a policy that students and their property can be searched by school staff – is this legal?
No. The school can only carry out searches as allowed by the search and confiscation powers explained in this section. Students also can’t be asked to consent to something that’s outside those powers.
The school may argue that by being enrolled at the school, you and your parents have agreed to this policy, but this is incorrect, as schools can’t adopt policies that breach New Zealand law.
However, if you freely volunteer to empty your bag (for example, because you’re keen to prove you’re innocent), then that is fine.
Can the school strip-search me?
No. However, if you refuse to remove your outer clothing when asked, or refuse to hand over a bag or container, the school can take reasonable disciplinary steps against you.
Can schools do blanket searches of whole classes or groups of students?
No. If, for example, something has apparently been stolen, the school can’t do a blanket search, even for a harmful item. For a teacher to be able to use the power to search students’ outer clothing or bags for harmful items, the teacher must have a reasonable belief relating to each student.
If a stolen item isn’t harmful – a pair of shoes, for example – and the teacher has a reasonable suspicion that a particular student has it, the teacher can demand that the student return the item. If the student doesn’t return it, they can be disciplined.
The police can be called if the school thinks this is appropriate.
Can a school search my locker?
A school can search its own property at any time for any reason. This includes lockers and desks provided to students for storage, like lockers and desks. If you freely choose to use a school-provided storage area, the school will be free to search it. The terms and conditions about the use of lockers should state that the school can search your locker and any bag or container in it.
This doesn’t mean that a school can search your bag whenever you leave it somewhere. If you’ve only left your bag somewhere temporarily – for example, on a hook in the changing room during a single PE class – you probably haven’t given up control of it. This means your bag could only be searched if a teacher reasonably believed it contained a harmful item.
If you don’t want your school to be able to search your bag at any time, it is best not to leave it in a school-provided storage area.
If teachers think a student has something illegal, can they hold them until the police arrive?
The school can keep you under supervision until the police arrive. If you leave, the school can discipline you. If you leave the school grounds, you’ll be considered truant.
The laws on searches and confiscations in schools don’t affect the powers that the police have. The police can carry out searches if these are lawful and reasonable, and this will depend on the circumstances in each case. For example, if police have reasonable grounds to believe drugs are involved, they can search you without your consent. The police, like the school, can’t carry out “blanket searches” of whole groups or classes of students – to carry out a search of any student or their property, the police have to have reasonable grounds that relate specifically to that student.
If the police want to search you, you should say clearly that you don’t consent to the search, but it is best not to resist. If you think the search was carried out roughly or without good reason, you should complain to the Independent Police Conduct Authority – www.ipca.govt.nz
Can the school call in drug-sniffing dogs to do a general search for drugs?
A school can search its own property at any time, for any reason, and by any method. This includes lockers, desks and other storage containers provided to students. The school can hire contractors to bring in drug-sniffing dogs to search desks, lockers and other school property. However, the students themselves can’t be searched.
The police can use drug-sniffing dogs to search a person if the police have a reasonable suspicion, or if they have a search warrant issued by a court.
Can a school carry out drug-testing of students?
Random drug testing of students isn’t allowed.
However, if you’ve been suspended, the board of trustees can place reasonable conditions on you coming back to school. These can include requiring you to participate in a drug treatment programme that includes testing for drugs.
Students can also freely agree to be tested for drugs.