- by Brian S. Batterton
Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute | School Resources & Training Institute
Brannum v. Overton County School Board, et al., No. 06-5931, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 3496 (6th Cir. Decided February 20, 2008)
Schools are ever vigilant for techniques to increase security and the safety of students. One method of increasing security is through the installation of video surveillance equipment. School administrators, however, should be mindful as to where the cameras are installed in order to avoid violating the constitutional rights of the students. This was recently illustrated in a case decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Brannum v. Overton County School Board, et al., the Overton School Board approved the installation of video surveillance equipment throughout Livingston Middle School.i The Board did not specify where the cameras should be installed in the school, but rather the assistant principal was placed in charge of the camera placement. In conjunction with a camera company employee, the assistant principal had the cameras installed in hallways leading to exterior doors and in the boys and girls locker rooms. Images captured by the cameras were transferred to a computer system that was accessible to anyone with the password. This access could even be accomplished remotely, away from the school.
After several months, the assistant principal realized that the locker room cameras were video taping the area where students changed clothes for sporting events. He notified the principal of this fact, but the positioning of the cameras was not changed. The cameras remained operational in the locker rooms for approximately six months recording images of students, not only from Livingston Middle School, but also from other schools that visited in order to play sports. Over the six months that the cameras were operational, the system had been accessed remotely ninety-eight times from various locations.
Student plaintiffs sued the school board and the individual school officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. Thus, the issue before the court was whether the video surveillance of the students in the locker room was a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
Searches of students in schools are governed under the rules set forth by the United States Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O.ii A search must meet two requirements to be considered “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. First, the search must be justified at its inception. A search is justified at its inception when there are reasonable grounds to believe that the search will yield evidence that a student is violating school rules or the law. Second, the search must be reasonably related in scope to the facts that justified the search in the first place. A search is permissible in scope when the method taken to conduct the search is reasonably related to the objective of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the suspected infraction.
The Sixth Circuit then set out to apply the facts of this case to the rules set forth in T.L.O. First, the purpose of the surveillance was to increase school security, which is an appropriate purpose.
However, the real issue in this case stems from the second part of the T.L.O. test, particularly, whether the search was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the search in light of the age and sex of the students. The court first noted that students have a significant privacy interest in their unclothed bodies. As such, the reasons for a search such as the one in this case would have to be justified by a significant set of facts. However, in this case, the only justification was general security and no specific crime or rule violation was suspected. Thus, since the nature and immediacy of the governmental concern in this case was simply “general security” which the court considered minimal since it was not addressing a specific, serious problem. The court then concluded that a search that invaded the Fourth Amendment rights of the students to this extent was not permitted.
Therefore, the Sixth Circuit denied summary judgment for the principal and assistant principal because the court found that the right was clearly established such that a reasonable person would have known they were violating the constitution by the video surveillance in the locker rooms. However, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the school board because the plaintiffs could not point to a policy or practice of the board condoning such searches.
i Brannum v. Overton County School Board, et al., No. 06-5931, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 3496 (6th Cir. Decided February 20, 2008)