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School Violence and Weapons: Background

The school setting is unique in many ways. It forces large groups of people together for extended periods of time in small areas. Many of the people who are forced into the small area are minors who are incapable of making legal decisions. The adults that are present in these small areas are agents of the government, but not primarily trained in safety measures, who must nevertheless act to protect the children while respecting their rights as young citizens.

Laws on Violence in Schools

Laws on school violence must simultaneously fulfill the government's desire to protect students while respecting their rights under the Constitution. The federal government's first attempt to keep weapons away from schools was the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 (the GFSA), which made it a crime for anyone to bring a firearm close to a school district. Congress claimed that it had authority to do this because school violence affected interstate commerce, but the Supreme Court disagreed and struck the law down.

Congress later amended the GFSA and made it a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (the ESEA), which later became No Child Left Behind (NCLB). These laws made a "zero-tolerance" policy on weapons a requirement to receive federal funding on education.

School Violence and the Constitution

However, these federal laws must still operate within the bounds set forth by the constitution. School officials cannot simply search students and their belongings. Instead, they must have a reasonable suspicion before beginning the search, and must not intrude upon a child's privacy more than is warranted by the seriousness of their search.

School officials often monitor student speech for threatening messages. While school officials have broad authority to punish students for threatening or violent speech on school grounds, they must be careful to differentiate between speakers who intend to disrupt the school and speakers who have a valid message delivered with questionable taste.

School officials' authority to govern student speech that happens off campus is even more in doubt. Students are typically allowed to say whatever they like off campus. However, if student speech indicates that the student may have violent tendencies, school officials must act to keep the rest of the students safe. In addition, the distinction between on and off campus speech is blurred when that speech occurs on the Internet and may be read on school grounds.

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

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