Find the right way to carry out student searches

13th April 2018 at 00:00
Searching students for weapons or other banned items is a sensitive issue – but one that we must address if we want to keep our schools safe, says Simon Pearse

Picture the scene: rows of children queuing outside the school gates, waiting for their turn to step through the arch of an airport-style metal detector. The children are used to this procedure; it is something that they go through every single day.

Generally speaking, schools are safe spaces. Yet, with knife crime on the rise in the UK, and several recent school shootings in the US being widely reported, there are growing concerns about the need to keep dangerous objects out of school buildings.

The metal detector scenario is an extreme example of how we might tackle such concerns. A more common approach is to search students for the objects and substances you wish to keep out.

But how do you know who to search and when? How do you justify the procedure to students and to parents? And where do you draw the line between keeping your school safe and infringing the rights of young people?

Working across multiple settings, I have found that there is some confusion around the specific rights that school staff have to conduct searches. However, clear guidance is available. The Department for Education published its Searching, screening and confiscation at school guidance in 2014, with the latest update issued on 18 January this year (see bit.ly/DfEsearch). This document states that the head and school staff authorised by the head are able to search students when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the students may have:

* Illegal drugs;

* Alcohol;

* Tobacco and cigarette papers;

* Knives or weapons;

* Fireworks;

* Pornographic images;

* Stolen items;

* Anything that the school rules say is banned and may be searched for, such as a mobile phone.

 

The guidance also authorises the relevant staff to search students if there is a reasonable belief that they have brought any item onto the school site to either commit an offence or to cause injury to any individual (including themselves) or to damage property.

Clear guidance

The requirements for conducting a search are also included in the guidance. For example, it states that all students must be searched by a member of staff with a witness present. The member of staff and the witness must be of the same gender as the pupil, except in an extreme situation.

In addition, no clothing that directly touches the student’s skin (other than hats, shoes, gloves and scarves) may be required to be removed during a search.

This guidance is clear, if open to interpretation in practice, but there is still huge variation in how it is applied by schools. So, how do you develop a coherent policy from the official guidelines?

I firmly believe that all schools should have an agreed policy that reflects their setting and context. As a minimum, it should set out the following information:

* Who in school is authorised to conduct a search;

* A simple process allowing members of staff to quickly highlight concerns to those colleagues authorised to conduct a search;

* A step-by-step process for conducting a search;

* An agreed method for documenting each search that takes place.

 

There should also be a clear procedure for those times when a teacher does not wish to carry out a search because they fear for their safety – in the event that they believe a student may be carrying a knife, for example. Teachers are not police officers, and in these instances it would be wiser to contact the police.

As a case study, let me take a school that I worked with recently. At this school, senior leaders were concerned that illegal substances were being brought on to the school site, but they were unaware of the scale of the problem and unsure about how to tackle it.

After careful discussion, it was agreed that a structured and transparent search policy was needed. Only a small number of senior staff would be authorised to undertake a search, as this would prevent the practice from becoming too widespread.

A flow chart was developed, which identified the exact steps to be taken during each search. While there are no legal requirements around informing parents or recording a search, it was agreed that a search form – including details such as the name of the searcher, the grounds for the search and any items found – would be completed to ensure transparency.

Depending on the context, the parent would then either be invited into school to witness the search, would be notified that a search would be undertaken or would be notified after the search had happened.

All searches were undertaken discreetly and sensitively. To further increase transparency, all students were informed of the policy, including an explanation of exactly how the search would be undertaken, why such measures were necessary and the importance of reporting concerns immediately to staff.

So, how did parents and students react to the changes? Generally speaking, the parents were supportive of the approach, as they saw that the intention was to make the school a safer place for everyone.

The general student population responded positively too, Over time, the number of searches decreased, and far from feeling that their rights were being infringed, many students reported feeling safer in and around school as a result of the policy.

This, of course, is the overall goal.

Searches might not be a comfortable topic for discussion, and there must be careful consideration around developing policies. But anything that will make students and teachers feel safer in school is ultimately worth doing.


Simon Pearse is academic coach (behaviour) for Greenwood Academies Trust

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