The troubling spectrum of student privacy rights

The Constitution applies to everyone. It guarantees equal protection to all persons. And the Supreme Court treats issues of students’ constitutional privacy rights as the same throughout the land. But in practice, both the scope and substance of student privacy rights vary greatly–in ways that, like so much else in the U.S., are bound up with class and race inequalities.

My son attends Harriton High School in Lower Merion Township, just outside of Philadelphia. Last year the school was embroiled in a well-publicized controversy because all students had been given laptops that, it turned out, the school district could and sometimes did activate to take pictures of students in their homes.

When we found this out, we started waving to our son’s laptop during meals. The school has dropped this practice, an unconstitutional invasion of privacy–but one that’s an issue only in school districts that can afford to give every student a laptop.

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On Constitution Day earlier this year, I spoke to classes at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, located in a historic and beautiful building on Broad Street in Center City. But to enter that building, I along with everyone else had to go through a metal detector and have my bag X-rayed.

This is NOT an invasion of constitutional privacy rights. But they don’t do it at affluent, suburban Harriton High. They do it for even rather elite, “by application only” public schools in Philadelphia, like the High School for the Arts, because Philadelphia is a high-crime city. It is also, not coincidentally, a city with high poverty rates, especially in largely non-white neighborhoods.

Harriton and the High School for the Arts, which are not geographically very distant, peg down two ends of a troubling spectrum of privacy rights. That reality was underlined recently when a student in a Los Angeles high school had a gun in his backpack that accidentally went off, injuring two other students. His school does only random metal detector checks–as opposed to the “never” at Harriton and the “always” at the High School for the Arts–and he wasn’t checked. I don’t know his high school’s demographics, but I’ll bet they, too, are in the middle of the spectrum in terms of class, race, and ethnicity.

We tend to give poor, non-white, urban students the least privacy rights.

Everyone recognizes that there are tough questions about how far students should be recognized as having privacy rights. But we often fail to pay attention to the reality that in practice, we tend to give poor, non-white, urban students the least privacy rights.

There are good reasons for doing so, but these practices compound American inequalities in polarizing ways–so these privacy inequalities raise tough questions that we need to address as well.

Rogers Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Constitution Center scholar in our Student Exchange program on Jan. 26.

Photo credit: Flickr user jermainejustice.




  1. rshipman says

    As a teacher at an urban comprehensive high school in Southern California with over 4300 students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds on campus every day, I too am concerned with safety and the rights of students in public settings. However the question of using metal detectors as a preemptive measure for safety on a campus such as our, is not a practical application. Students pour into this campus at a variety of entry points and our staff and students do their best to create a safe learning environment for all students. The priority on this campus is education, and while safety is an essential component to creating a learning environment, it cannot take precedence with the implementation of metal detectors and invasive searches on a daily basis. Students fully understand the expectations and consequences of bringing illegal substances on campus and choose to comply with these norms. To assume every student is a criminal or is a potential threat to the safety of others is in conflict with the essence of education. That is not a climate I want to be a part of, nor should any student subject to.

  2. Happy Hands says

    When dealing in the topic of security vs. privacy rights, the biggest priority is that the people are safe. However, there is a point in which the security becomes overkill, and does more bad than good. I feel that students should not be profiled because they come from a certain area or demographic, because anyone can be a killer. The Columbine High School shooting is a perfect example of this. While statistically students from more impoverished neighborhoods may be more likely to carry a gun or have drugs, I personally can attest that I know plenty of rich, white kids that bring drugs and other dangerous things to school. All schools should implant x-ray scanners at their front gates, and that all students should be subject to random tests.

    – Sean Stewart

  3. Blondefighter says

    The fourth amendment states that people have the right against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant or probable cause. In high poverty and high crime areas like the surrounding area that Hollywood High is located in, there can be less security measures being put in place like the campus is not gated off. While at my school, in a middle class area that las a lower poverty and crime rate, is gated fully around our campus and we get locked in onto the campus. People will break their stereotypes and others will form one, but stereotyping rich elite kids as the ones without the problems its a false sense of security. Teenagers are known to be rebellious to authority, no matter what ethnic background you come from. Columbine, Colorado in 1999 was a relatively wealthy community and Columbine High School was considered a safe public school. But it was a false sense of security when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen students and themselves. In order to keep kids safe, security measures should be taken at all schools to keep racial profiling out of it and keep the privacy in.

    –Summer Ess
    Millikan High School

  4. clipfan says

    I believe any stereotype of a correlation between poverty and violence leaves us open to violence from other sources. Many of the most violent outbursts such: the Columbine, and unibomber incident for instance, come from white upper class, or affluent young adults. All schools should adopt at least a minimum security such as putting a gate around campus to limit entry points. We have to be able preempt violence from occurring by applying security at every school no matter the socioeconomic averages of the students or the area of the school.

    -Taylor Moxon
    Millikan High School
    Long Beach,California

  5. crazycami says

    Applying security measures in varying degrees depending on the geographic surroundings, is unproductive and merely alienates the targeted. A healthy educational environment does not foster hostility. It would be utterly false to deduce that students from lower class demographics are the only ones prone to acting out. Security should be evenly distributed, yet never hamper the educational experience in any way.

    -Josh Herbold, Millikan High school
    Long Beach, California

  6. Becca23 says

    As students from a culturally diverse school, with a variety of people from different social and economic backgrounds, we are fully aware of security measures that should be taken place. We are all for the protection of the students who attend this school, and feel that security protocol should be used in order to keep us safe. All though we are willing to go through security measures for our protection, we still know that there is a thin line that can be crossed when your personal privacy is involved. When it comes to the safety of many, or the involvement of many, security measures should outweigh privacy rights.

    – Aamil Muhammad, Rebecca Tamayo, Cami Vermeulen
    Millikan High School Long Beach, California

  7. austin says

    The argument that certain stereotypes are logical is understandable, however that is not the American way. America is a country where freedom rings and we, under no circumstances, are allowed to subject anyone to profiling. This is a country where we help people in need. Usually shooters show some sign of mental instability and the best way to preemptively attack this issue is to create an accepting and understanding atmosphere. This change in attitude would lead to a more mature learning environment and along with stern security enforcement we could significantly reduce the risk of violence in our schools without suffocating students at the gates.

    -Austin Anderson & Celena Gonzales
    MIllikan High School
    Long Beach, California

  8. megangarcia says

    As a student in a high school which is surrounded by a middle to upper-middle class neighborhood, I understand where Mr. Smith has accumulated his view on security. Although my high school is an a so-called good demographic, it is filled with students from different areas. Millikan accepts students from many different areas of Long Beach, and occasionally elsewhere, as other urban schools might strictly accept students from their neighborhood. Security should not be based on the location in which the school is in; there are plenty of examples where students from a higher class are likely to act out much like a student from a lower class area (Columbine and Virginia Tech). It might be more commonly found in areas of high crime to include more security measures in their school, however violence can occur anywhere. There should be a minimum standard of security at all schools nation wide, regardless of their location. For example, all schools could install gates surrounding their campus and require school identification in order to come inside to keep safety. Based on the demographic, certain schools could possibly install more security based on what they believe is necessary, however all schools should have somewhat equal treatment.

    -Megan Garcia & Jaime Hastings
    Millikan High School
    Long Beach, CA