In Backpack Decision, Ohio Supreme Court Rules Against Student Privacy

May 12, 2017

The Ohio Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a student’s constitutional rights weren’t violated by a search of an unattended book bag that led to the discovery of a gun.

In 2013, officials at Columbus’ Whetstone High School found a gun in 18 year old Joshua Polk’s backpack. They were led to Polk after first finding bullets and an item that had Polk’s name on it in another bookbag left on a school bus.

As a result of that search, Polk faced charges for possession of a gun on school property.

Polk’s lawyer had sought to have the search of that second bag thrown out. In two lower court rulings, it had been ruled unlawful.

But Franklin County assistant prosecutor Seth Gilbert told the justices last month it was perfectly legal.

“Schools have a heightened interest to maintain safety,” Gilbert said. “Students have a reduced expectation of privacy. It doesn’t matter what the subjective motives are.”

Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote for the unanimous court that a compelling interest in protecting students makes Whetstone’s unwritten policy to search all unattended bags reasonable.

As WOSU previously reported, legal experts say this case could end up defining how students' privacy is measured against the need to secure a campus.

"It could have a very serious impact in public schools," said Ric Simmons, a professor at the Ohio State University law school. "Public school officials generally want more authority to search backpacks, lockers. Students themselves, and of course civil libertarians, believe that students should have the same rights as everyone else."