Searching pupils at school
There may be some situations where you might have to search a pupil due to safety concerns. The Department for Education (DfE) has issued powers to schools which allows school staff to search pupils with or without their consent. The powers also include confiscating and seizing items during a search.
This article outlines the circumstance in which you can conduct a search, which items are prohibited, and what happens if you are alleged of any wrongdoing.
Searching pupils when they have offered consent
School staff can search pupils with their consent for any item. Schools are not required to have formal written consent from the pupils for this sort of search. It is enough for the teacher to ask the pupil to turn out his or her pockets or if they can look in the pupil’s bag or locker and for the pupil to agree.
If you suspect a pupil has a banned item in his or her possession, you can instruct the pupil to turn out their pockets or bag.
Searching pupils when they have not offered their consent
You have the statutory power to search pupils or their possessions, without consent, where you have reasonable grounds for suspecting that the pupil may have a prohibited item. You are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ to search for the following prohibited items:
- Knives and weapons
- Illegal drugs
- Stolen items
- Tobacco and cigarette papers
- Pornographic images
- Any item that has been or is likely to be used to commit an offence, cause personal injury or damage to property
Another article on Edapt outlines what constitutes as “reasonable force” in schools.
You can only undertake a search without consent if you have reasonable grounds for suspecting that a pupil may have in his or her possession a prohibited item. You must decide in each particular case what constitutes reasonable grounds for suspicion.
For example, you may have heard other pupils talking about the item or you might have noticed a pupil behaving in a way that causes them to be suspicious. You are allowed to view CCTV footage in order to make a decision as to whether to conduct a search for an item.
Who should conduct the search?
The law states the member of staff conducting the search must be of the same sex as the pupil being searched. There must be another member of staff present as a witness to the search.
The DfE explains there is a limited exception to this rule. This is that a member of staff can search a pupil of the opposite sex and/or without a witness present only:
- If the member of staff carrying out the search reasonably believes there is risk that serious harm will be caused to a person if the search is not carried out as a matter of urgency; and
- In the time available, it is not reasonably practicable for the search to be carried out by a member of staff who is same sex as the pupil or it is not reasonably practicable for the search to be carried out in the presence of another member of staff
When a member of staff conducts a search without a witness they should immediately report this to another member of staff, and ensure a record of the search is kept.
Can I refuse to conduct a search?
Yes. A headteacher cannot require a member of staff to conduct a search. In order to conduct a search without consent, you must be authorised to do so. Staff can choose whether they want to be authorised, or not.
Confiscating electronic devices
When conducting a search you might find an electronic device such as a mobile phone or tablet, you are allowed to examine and delete any data or files on the device if you think there is a good reason to do so. In determining ‘good reason’, you must suspect the data or file can be used to harm, disrupt learning or break the school rules.
If inappropriate material is found on the device it is up to you whether to delete the material, retain it as evidence or whether the material is of such seriousness that it requires the involvement of the police.
What happens if the pupil does not have anything prohibited on them?
The powers allow school staff to search, regardless of whether the pupil is found after the search to have something prohibited. This includes circumstances where staff suspect a pupil of having items such as illegal drugs or stolen property which are later found not to be illegal or stolen.
Strip searches: what do school staff need to know?
The DfE explains a strip search is a search involving the removal of more than outer clothing.
Strip searches on school premises can only be carried out by police officers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Code A and in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Code C.
While the decision to undertake the strip search itself and its conduct are police matters, school staff retain a duty of care to the pupil(s) involved and should advocate for pupil wellbeing at all times.
Before calling police into school, staff should assess and balance the risk of a potential strip search on the pupil’s mental and physical wellbeing and the risk of not recovering the suspected item. Staff should consider whether introducing the potential for a strip search through police involvement is absolutely necessary, and should always ensure that other appropriate, less invasive approaches have been exhausted.
Once the police are on school premises, the decision on whether to conduct a strip search lies solely with them, and the role of the school is to advocate for the safety and wellbeing of the pupil(s) involved.
Unless there is an immediate risk of harm and where reasonably possible, staff should inform a parent of the pupil suspected of concealing an item in advance of the search, even if the parent is not acting as the appropriate adult. Parents should always be informed by a staff member once a strip search has taken place. Schools should keep records of strip searches that have been conducted on school premises and monitor them for any trends that emerge.
The DfE explains that any search by a member of staff for a prohibited item and all searches conducted by police officers should be recorded in the school’s safeguarding reporting system, including whether or not an item is found.
This will allow the designated safeguarding lead (or deputy) to identify possible risks and initiate a safeguarding response if required. Headteachers may also decide that all searches for items banned by the school rules should be recorded. Staff members should follow the school policy in these cases.
Schools are encouraged to include in the record of each search:
- The date, time and location of the search
- Which pupil was searched
- Who conducted the search and any other adults or pupils present
- What was being searched for
- The reason for searching
- What items, if any, were found
- What follow-up action was taken as a consequence of the search.
Schools who conduct a high number of searches should consider whether the searches fall disproportionately on any particular groups of pupils by analysing the recorded data. In such cases where searching is falling disproportionately on any group or groups, they should consider whether any actions should be taken to prevent this.
Searching pupils: what happens if I am alleged of wrongdoing?
Headteachers and authorised school staff have a specific statutory power to search pupils without consent for specific items, knives/weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs and stolen items.
As long as the member of staff acts within the limits of this specific power, as outlined above, they will have a robust defence against a legal challenge. You can contact us if you have been alleged of any wrongdoing when conducting a search at your school.
Was this article helpful?
The information contained within this article is not a complete or final statement of the law.
While Edapt has sought to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date, it is not responsible and will not be held liable for any inaccuracies and their consequences, including any loss arising from relying on this information. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence. If you are an Edapt subscriber with an employment-related issue, please contact us and we will be able to refer you to one of our caseworkers.