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School Searches and Weapons

A public school's first duty is not to educate students; it is to make sure the students are safe. Schools consequently have broad authority to ban weapons from school and to enforce that ban. This article reviews what a school can and cannot do to keep children safe from weapons.

Weapons Bans and Zero Tolerance Policies

The first major attempt by Congress to keep weapons out of schools was the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which made it a federal crime to bring a gun close to a school. However, the Supreme Court struck this law down because it represented a major overreach by the federal government. Congress claimed that removing weapons from schools affected interstate commerce and therefore fell within federal jurisdiction, but the Court decided that guns and schools were not actually in the stream of interstate commerce.

Congress therefore amended the Gun Free Schools Act by making it a part of No Child Left Behind, which required schools to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy towards weapons in schools in order to get federal funding. This means that any school who receives funding from Title IV of No Child Left Behind must expel any student that brings a weapon to campus. Some states attach additional penalties to bringing a weapon to school, for example, Florida and Kansas will revoke a student's driving license if he is found with a weapon on school grounds. School officials furthermore have broad authority to search students and their belongings whenever they have a reasonable suspicion that the student may possess a weapon.

The Limits of School Authority

Schools do whatever they can to keep students safe, but their reach only goes so far. Schools cannot regulate what students do in their free time, off campus. This means that if a student can legally own a weapon in her state, she is allowed to keep and use that weapon somewhere away from school without repercussions in school.

Secondly, schools have much greater authority over student behavior than over adult behavior. Whether adults may bring weapons onto school grounds varies widely from state to state and from person to person. Many schools have "school resource officers," who are armed police officers that patrol the school and carry a service weapon. Some states explicitly allow teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons with them to school because they believe it will help them protect students. Still other states have concealed carry laws that severely restrict the state's ability to limit guns, even on school grounds.

Finally, zero tolerance policies can be difficult to enforce. Many students who are expelled under a "zero tolerance policy" do not realize that they are bringing a weapon to school, or may do so for innocent reasons. For example, students sometimes bring small knives to school for a variety of reasons without realizing that knives are also weapons banned under Title IV of No Child Left Behind. These students' expulsions can then be challenged, and may be reversed upon review.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on Student Discipline and Codes of Conduct.

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