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New Jersey v. T.L.O.

This Fourth Amendment activity is based on the landmark Supreme Court case New Jersey v. T.L.O. dealing with the authority of school officials to search students’ possessions at school. The question in the fictional scenario today is: Can a school search a student’s backpack?

Although the landmark Supreme Court case New Jersey v. T.L.O. was decided in 1985, it still has an impact on every student who brings a purse or backpack to school.

The case involved a high school girl who, because she was a juvenile at the time, was referred to in court and in court records by her initials -- T.L.O. She was accused of smoking in the bathroom. When T.L.O. denied the allegation, a school official searched her purse and found cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia.

When T.L.O. went to family court in her hometown to claim her Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the judge ruled against her and declared T.L.O. a delinquent. When she appealed to the New Jersey State Supreme Court, the justices ruled that the school had violated T.L.O.’s Fourth Amendment rights. 

The State of New Jersey took the case to the Supreme Court of the United States which ruled that the school’s search was reasonable and had not violated T.L.O.’s Fourth Amendment rights. In a 6-3 decision, the Court reasoned that students in primary and secondary school should not be afforded the same level of search and seizure protection as adults and as juveniles in non-school settings.

The court simulation of this case that follows uses a fictional scenario that is updated to include the clash between federal and state marijuana laws. The scenario raises questions that can have an impact on you regardless of your stance on the legalization of marijuana.

How to Use These Resources

This activity is a modified Oxford-style debate.

1.  To get started, refer to the proposed agenda.

2. Have participants read the facts and case summary.

3. Have participants read the fictional scenario.

4. Assign two opposing teams of student attorneys to the issues listed in the talking points. They are suggested points for the debate – not a script. Student attorneys are encouraged to add their own arguments.

5.  While the student attorneys prepare, all other students work in pairs to prepare for the open-floor debate/jury deliberations. Jury deliberations happen in the courtroom after the student attorneys present their arguments. To prepare, the student jurors discuss and fill out the arguments worksheet

6.  The program leader has the worksheet answer key and leads the discussion among the student jurors while the student attorneys prepare their arguments.

5.  When the debate starts, the judge and student attorneys read the opening protocol script, then go into their arguments, using the talking points.

6.  When it is time for the jury deliberations in the courtroom, the program leader calls on the jurors to express their views. Due to time constraints, the jury does not have to come to a verdict.