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Colorado schools don’t need warrant to search students on safety plans for weapons, state Supreme Court rules

Unanimous ruling stems from case involving 10th grader who brought weapon to Denver’s John F. Kennedy High School in 2019
Posted at 4:20 PM, Mar 25, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-26 00:20:36-04

DENVER — Colorado school officials don’t need a warrant to search students on safety plans for weapons, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Monday, finding such searches lawful and not in violation of a student’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

The ruling stemmed from a case involving a 14-year-old who brought a weapon to Denver’s John F. Kennedy High School in 2019. The student – a 9th grader only identified in court documents as “J.G.” – was previously found guilty of several firearm-related offenses and was subject to daily searches as part of a safety plan, which he complied with through the end of that school year.

When he came back the next year, however, J.G. wasn’t searched for the first two days of class. It was only on the third day of class – after he refused to comply with a daily search – that school administrators found a loaded handgun in his backpack, court documents read. The boy was subsequently arrested and suspended from school.

In making his case before juvenile court, J.G. argued that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because school administrators did not have reasonable suspicion to search him, that the safety plan did not establish his consent to be searched, and even if the safety plan did establish consent, his particular plan was no longer in place at the time of the search in question.

The court disagreed.

In a unanimous, 21-page opinion, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart wrote that while “Nobody was really on notice” at Kennedy about the status of J.G.’s safety plan, perhaps due to a lack of communication between school staff at the beginning of the school year, “the plan was intended to continue throughout J.G.’s time at Kennedy.”

Arguing that summer break only provided “a short lapse in enforcement” of the school safety plan, Hart wrote that J.G. should have known that he would be subject to daily searches, including a search of his backpack, as students have a limited right to privacy in a school setting.

The justices maintained that while it is well established that students do not “shed their constitutional rights… at the schoolhouse gate,” constitutional protections for students – such as the Fourth Amendment – apply differently in school settings where the state has the responsibility to maintain discipline, health and safety.

School safety plans gain the spotlight

School safety plans that in some instances require that students be patted down and searched for weapons each day became a topic of discussion for families and district leaders alike last year after a student at East High School, who was under such a protocol, shot and injured two school deans during his daily pat down.

In the days that followed, Denver Public Schools officials fired former McAuliffe International School Principal Kurt Dennis days after he criticized the district over safety concerns at the school, particularly daily pat downs of some students. District officials would later say he was fired for sharing confidential student information in violation of violation of state and federal law.

Later that summer, several DPS officials would reveal the district was investigating what they called an “incarceration room” found inside McAuliffe where students of color were placed after “quite literally (being) dragged through the school screaming down the hallway.”

The former principal would later say that both the room and the method in which students were disciplined was “district sanctioned.”

A Denver7 investigation from late spring last year found 40 DPS students were under a pat-down safety policy the same day as a shooting inside East High, and that these numbers are not required to be reported to the district.

Of the records Denver7 Investigates received, the schools with the highest number of students being checked for weapons at that time were:

  • North High School (12)
  • Lincoln High School (6)
  • John F. Kennedy High School (6)
  • Thomas Jefferson High School (4)
  • Kepner Beacon Middle School (4)

By late June 2023, DPS had released its final draft of the district’s school safety plan, which included potential weapon detection systems, expansion of school resource officers (SROs) and a modified pat-down policy.

Denver 7+ Colorado News Latest Headlines | March 25, 11am

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