LINCOLN — Off-campus parking at Nebraska high schools may be at a premium after a ruling by the state’s high court on Friday.
A divided Nebraska Supreme Court, ruling on a case at Millard West High School in Omaha, said school officials lack the authority to search a student’s vehicle if it is parked off school property.
The 5-1 ruling was the first time the state’s high court has weighed in on the issue of students’ off-campus rights when it comes to searches and seizures versus a school’s need to provide a safe and secure campus.
It also represented a rare split decision on a court known for unanimous rulings.
An attorney who represented the Millard West student said the ruling drew an appropriate boundary, but the decision brought a strong dissent from one judge, Chief Justice Mike Heavican.
Heavican said the court’s decision would allow students to “hide from authority simply by parking their vehicles across the street” and will hinder a school’s ability to keep the learning environment free of drugs and gun violence.
“It is a fundamental understanding and expectation of parents and citizens that schools will provide a safe environment for students to learn and develop,” the chief justice wrote.
The majority opinion, written by Judge John Wright, said schools can still protect their students, but when it comes to off-campus searches, those matters should be turned over to law enforcement agencies trained in proper searches.
“Schools have a limited scope of authority, and that was properly upheld,” said Omaha attorney Rich McGowan.
McGowan represented a senior at Millard West, identified as “J.P.” in court records, who was caught leaving the high school without permission on Aug. 18, 2010.
Assistant Principal Harry Grimminger questioned the student and then searched him in his office. Nothing improper was found. Grimminger then decided to search the student’s pickup, which was parked across the street along 176th Avenue, where several students park.
The student did not consent to the search and said his father would also object. Inside the pickup, two drug pipes and rolling papers were found.
That led the Millard schools to suspend the student for 19 days.
But on appeal, Douglas County District Judge James Gleason overturned the suspension and ordered it removed from the student’s records.
That prompted the school district to appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The majority opinion said school officials have the power to search students on school grounds and at school-sponsored events off school property when they have a “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing. But the State Legislature has not “deputized” school officials to enforce laws and rules elsewhere, according to the opinion.
The opinion also noted school officials did not have a reasonable suspicion that the pickup contained something like drugs, since none were found during the search at school.
“If they still suspected that there was contraband in J.P.’s truck parked off campus, despite finding none on his person, they should have notified law enforcement authorities, who are trained in the principles of when and how to conduct a lawful, warrantless vehicle search,” Judge Wright wrote.
The majority said that the act of driving to school — unlike taking a school field trip — did not represent a “school-sponsored activity.”
Students have a reasonable expectation of privacy, Wright wrote, and while school officials have a duty to maintain discipline at school, several court rulings have not extended that duty beyond school grounds.
He wrote that attending school was the “ultimate” school-sponsored activity, and that J.P.’s misconduct occurred during school hours. The school was responsible for the student’s safety, the judge wrote, and officials had a right to search off school property.
“The school’s responsibility for J.P. was the same as if he was at a school-sponsored activity or event held off campus,” Heavican wrote.
He cited the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of a Juneau, Alaska, student who held up a banner that read “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” across the street from the school during the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay.
In that case, the court ruled the school had the authority to discipline the student for conduct off school grounds because it was during a school-sanctioned field trip.
But McGowan, the Millard student’s attorney, said that case clearly involved a school-sponsored activity, unlike the Nebraska case.
To allow such off-campus searches, McGowan said, would be to permit tactics such as those employed by the dean of students in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The obsessed administrator attempted to crawl through a doggie door at Ferris Bueller’s home to discover if the student was sick or playing hooky.
McGowan said he cited the example in trying to convince the Millard schools to overturn the suspension of his client.
On Friday, the Millard Public Schools referred questions to the district’s attorney, Jeff Miller.
Miller said he was disappointed by the ruling. School officials, he said, had every reason to be suspicious, given the student’s violations of student codes in leaving school.
But the court said that didn’t matter. School officials simply don’t have the right to search off campus, the majority stated in its opinion.
Said Miller: “We’ll have to evaluate this and determine what we can do to maintain the safety and security of our school district.”
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