Category Student/Enrollment Issues
Title Ski Trip Gone Awry
Preview A case where students were caught with illegal substances on a school sanctioned trip and subsequently prosecuted in court.

Ski Trip Gone Awry

About thirty high school students and nine staff members of Bishop Stang High School, a Catholic school in Fall River, Massachusetts, were on a school-sponsored ski trip to Jiminy Peak Resort in the town of Hancock, Massachusetts. Four students stayed in each room.

The students knew that they had to abide by certain rules, such as giving their room key to a chaperone each morning and not being in their room during the day without a chaperone. The school's student handbook had three stipulations that were relevant to this case: (1) school personnel had the right to inspect "any locker at any time if the administration believes that the content of any locker is not in the best interests of the school"; (2) "any tobacco, drugs, alcohol, or other illegal substances will be confiscated and dealt with appropriately"; and (3) "all school rules apply on all field trips."

One of the chaperones on the trip learned that some students had been to their room unsupervised, and decided to check on them. She and another chaperone retrieved the room key and proceeded to the room. The three defendants [Keith Considine, Caleb Tripp, and Jeffrey Rogers] and the younger brother of Tripp were in the room ... and were reluctant to leave. Once the boys finally agreed to "go out skiing," everyone left the room.

The chaperones decided to "check" the boys' room and used the key to open the door. They and the school principal searched the room thoroughly, opened containers and bags, and found "numerous items of contraband," including alcohol and lighters. Two clay pipes were found in a search of trash that had been removed from the room. The boys were summoned, and when they were ordered to empty their pockets, [the older] Tripp "handed over" marijuana and a clay pipe, and Rogers "handed over" a small container of marijuana. Hotel security was notified and the head of security ... responded and ordered the boys to put their belongings in a pile. Each made admissions, with Tripp admitting possession of the cocaine. The hotel security officer called the state police. Trooper Jones arrived, advised Tripp of his rights, and had just begun a conversation with Tripp when attorney Considine, defendant Keith Considine's father, called and instructed "them" not to talk. All questioning then ceased.

The three older boys "were charged with one count each of possession of a class B substance, possession of a class D substance, and being a minor in possession of alcohol."

When the boys appeared in a state lower court, their attorneys argued that the search of the boys' room by school officials was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and that, therefore, "reasonable suspicion" was required to support the search:

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in pertinent part: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...."

Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights states in pertinent part: "Every subject has a right to be secure from all unreasonable searches, and seizures, of his person, his houses, his papers, and all his possessions."

The judge agreed and based his reasoning on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), "which held that public school officials searching students' persons and effects act in a public capacity, as agents of the state, and are therefore subject to the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule." In a school setting, the officials needed to "act only reasonably in the circumstances-that is, they must have reasonable suspicion, rather than probable cause, to support a search." If a search is not conducted under these circumstances, any evidence found during a search must be suppressed or excluded from the court case.

The judge concluded that there is no logical reason for the rights of public school students to differ from those of private school students, stating that "both attend the school of their choosing under the same [state mandates that compel attendance]." Accordingly, he determined that the "reasonable suspicion" standard of New Jersey v. T.L.O., supra, applies both to public and to private school searches and that that standard had not been met here. The judge also determined that the statements made to the hotel security official and to the state trooper were "uninterrupted fruit of the poisonous tree." ... Accordingly, he suppressed the physical evidence and the statements.

The Commonwealth wanted the criminal charges against the boys to stand, so it appealed the case to a higher court. Was the search permissible? Is there a difference between the searches done by public school officials and private school officials? You be the judge.

Commonwealth v. Keith Considine (and two companion cases), 448 Mass. 295, 860
N.E.2d 673 (decided January 31, 2007)

Answer: You Be the Judge
Ski Trip Gone Awry

The legal question of whether the physical evidence and student statements should be suppressed or could be used in court ended up being decided by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The court held that "(1) suppression of evidence seized by the school officials was not required because private school officials were not state agents; (2) suppression was not required based on actions of hotel's head of security because he was acting in a private capacity; and (3) any search or seizure of by police officer was permissible because he entered students' hotel room with consent of school officials." The court reversed the decision of the lower court and remanded the cases back to the lower court for a trial on the offenses.

What Can We Learn from This Case?

First, private schools and their employees are not "state actors" in the eyes of the law, but public schools are state actors. As state actors, public schools must follow their state constitution and the U.S. Constitution to provide parents and students with such constitutional protections as "equal protection under the law." (Note: For California member schools, the California Constitution affords constitutional rights of privacy.) From this case you can also see that they labor under more restrictions on conducting student searches. Courts have ruled that the First Amendment allows public school students to publically express themselves in student newspapers, on websites, and in other places, with much greater liberty (license) than private schools typically allow their students. Since private schools are not state actors, they can set their own admissions standards as long as they don't violate public policy such as racial nondiscrimination. Private schools don't have to take every applicant for admission or for employment.

Second, this school wisely had the following sentence in its student handbook: "All school rules apply on all field trips." An even better, morecomprehensive wording that would also cover sports and other offcampus events might be the following: "All school rules apply on all field trips and on all school-sponsored events on the school campus and away from it."

And third, when you ask people to serve as chaperones for an event, be sure to explain to them what their roles will be and what the school's expectations are for students attending the event. If that proactive inservice of volunteers doesn't take place, volunteers tend to stand around, unsure of what they should be doing. It's clear in this case that the chaperones were proactive in checking on students and searching the hotel room.

LLU 19.1

Notice: These articles are designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. They have been provided to member schools with the understanding that ACSI is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, tax or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Laws vary by jurisdiction and the specific application of laws to particular facts requires the advice of an attorney.

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