Feb 112012

Teachers, as well as teachers in training, are probably aware that their profession is unlike any other. After all, in what other job are professionals responsible for not only the safety of other people’s children, but also their education, and by extension, their futures?

There are many unique issues that educators can face, including long hours, low pay, and growing public hostility towards government employees (including teachers). Everyone who is a teacher, or considering becoming one, needs to consider these very important practical issues.

However, there are some issues which can be very important, which many teachers don’t consider: legal issues.

These issues can come out of nowhere, and can also get pretty complicated, especially if you teach at a public school. These issues include the application of “search and seizure” laws and privacy rights to students at public schools, students’ rights to free expression, and bullying.

This article will provide a general overview of these legal issues, and others. It’s not a comprehensive guide to the law, of course, but it should still provide some good information about these issues, and how to resolve them without significant conflict.

Search and Seizure

The 4th Amendment provides everyone in the U.S. with a right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure by government agents. This right applies to students in public schools, as well. However, what constitutes an “unreasonable” search and seizure varies, depending on the circumstances. Students in public schools have a reduced expectation of privacy than they do in most other settings.

In general, students have a reasonable expectation of privacy for items in their lockers, their own bags, and on their persons. A school official can only search a student if they have an objectively reasonable belief that the search is more likely than not to turn up evidence that the student is engaged in illegal activity.

Student Speech

The 1st Amendment provides all Americans with the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Like the 4th Amendment, the 1st Amendment applies to students in public schools, as well. However, just like other constitutional rights, it applies differently in public schools. In general, students at public schools are free to express their political, social, and religious opinions. However, these rights are far more limited in public schools than they are in other areas. Educators must balance their legitimate interest in providing an education free of disruption against the rights of students to freely express themselves.

Generally, speech can only be restricted if the administrators can show that allowing it would cause a serious disruption of the school’s educational mission.


Lincoln students Docs-4-a-Day 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: D.B. Blas

Over the last few years, the issue of bullying in schools has come to the forefront of public discussion. There have been a few tragic incidents where students have suffered severe injuries at the hands of bullies.

Even more tragic, some students have resorted to suicide, with persistent bullying being one of the main causes. This has led to significant legal issues for schools, and sometimes individual teachers. For example, parents of students who have committed suicide because of bullying at school have filed major lawsuits against schools and school administrators.

In order to avoid this, it’s absolutely essential that teachers take all reports of bullying seriously. This means taking time to speak with the student who’s reporting the bullying, and reporting it to an administrator. Teachers should also, following their best judgment, contact the parents of the alleged victim as well as the alleged bully.


This article is just a basic overview of some of the legal issues that teachers can face, and it is not meant to be a step-by-step guide to dealing with every possible legal issue that can come up in the educational setting. However, knowing a little about the law that most affects your field should prove useful in spotting and dealing with these issues before they become major problems.

John Richards is a writer for LegalMatch.com and the LegalMatch.com Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation.

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