Police / Police in schools / Searches in schools

Can I be searched in school?

Can a police officer search a pupil on school property? Can a teacher search a pupil? Are metal detectors allowed at the school gates? Who can be an appropriate adult?

Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our ‘I need a lawyer’ page.

Police officers have powers to stop and search people. Although these powers are usually used in public spaces, like in the street, they may also be relevant in a school. For example, they can be used to search pupils for drugs or weapons. Members of school staff also have some powers to search pupils in school.

What are the rules for a police search?

Ordinary police officers have to obey the stop and search rules when they search pupils on school property as well. Before a search, an officer has to to comply with ‘GOWISELY’:

  • G: Grounds for suspicion. For suspicion-based searches, the police must clearly explain the basis for their reasonable suspicion.
  • O: Object of the search. The police must clearly explain what they are looking for.
  • W: Warrant card. The police must show you this if you ask for it, or if they aren’t wearing a uniform.
  • I: Identity of the police officer or officers. The police officers involved in stopping and searching you must give you their name and shoulder number.
  • S: Station. The police must tell you which police station they work at.
  • E: Entitlement to a search record. The police must provide you with a copy of the search record or, if this is not practicable, provide information on how you can get a copy.
  • L: Legal power used. The police must tell you what legal power they are using to stop and search you.
  • Y: ‘You are detained for the purposes of a search’. The police must tell you this. ‘Detained’ means you are not free to leave until they tell you.

If they fail to comply with any of these requirements, the search will be unlawful.

The initial search should only be an outer layer search. This means that they can ask someone to take off items such as outer jackets, gloves and hats, but nothing which will reveal any skin.

They can only conduct a strip search (anything more than the outer layers) if they have reasonable grounds to believe that this is where they’ll find what they’re looking for. The fact that they don’t find something during the outer layer search is not a reasonable ground for a strip search. Any strip search has to take place out of public view.

The police are allowed to use reasonable force for a search; however, this should only be used as a last resort, e.g. if someone is physically resisting being searched. If the police use force which seems unreasonable this could be unlawful.

What is a Safer Schools Police Officer?

Safer Schools Police Officers (‘SSPOs’) are police officers who are assigned to a school (or a number of schools) under a Safer Schools Partnership (SSP) agreement.

SSPOs are able to use ordinary police search powers. However, they might also be able to use staff members’ search powers under their agreement.

Searching for weapons

Entering school property to search for weapons

Under Section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, police officers have the power to enter school property to search people if they believe someone is carrying a weapon on the premises.

They must have reasonable grounds for this belief before they can enter the property. However, once they are on the property, they can then search anyone on the premises for weapons. They don’t need reasonable grounds for each individual search.

Even though they can do an outer layer search under this power without reasonable grounds, they cannot conduct a strip search without them.

What does ‘reasonable grounds’ mean?

‘Reasonable grounds’ is what an ordinary person would think was fair if they had all the information the police officer has. You can’t be stopped without a reason.  Unless the police  have information which provides a description of someone carrying an illegal item, the reasonable grounds cannot be based on your physical appearance,  being part of a category of people, such as being a black girl, or
generalisations or stereotypes.

If you are searched, you should be told the grounds for the search. You should also be given the chance to request a copy of the “record” of the search, which should include these grounds.

“Section 60” suspiconless searches for weapons

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows a police officer to stop and search a person without reasonable suspicion. These are known as ‘Section 60’ suspicionless searches.

Section 60 powers can only be used when an inspector (or higher ranked officer) has given authorisation for officers to use these powers in a certain area. The authorisation has to be based on the reasonable belief that:

  • a violent incident has taken place, or
  • a violent incident may take place, or
  • someone is carrying an offensive weapon without good reason.

Authorisation can’t last for more than 24 hours, unless it’s extended (up to another 24 hours) by a superintendent (or higher ranked officer).

Officers can’t use section 60 powers to enter the school property, but they might be allowed to use this power if a school falls within an authorised area and they are already on the property lawfully. For example, at the invitation of the headteacher. The law is unclear on this point.

Only outer layer searches can be conducted as part of a suspicionless-based search. The police can only strip search you if they reasonably believe you have concealed an item that you should not have, and they believe it necessary to remove that item.

Searches by school staff

The headteacher, and any member of staff the headteacher authorises, also have the power to search for certain items. While this power can’t be extended to ordinary police officers, it can potentially be extended to SSPOs if they’re considered a member of staff under a Safer Schools Partnership Agreement.

Searches must be based on reasonable grounds. Searches can include searching the pupil’s bag, desk or locker. The pupil must be present, as should a second member of staff. Strip searches on school premises can only be carried out by police officers if they reasonably believe a pupil has concealed an item that they should not have, and they believe it is necessary to remove that item.

The items that can be searched for are:

  • knives or weapons
  • alcohol
  • illegal drugs
  • stolen items
  • fireworks
  • tobacco and cigarette papers
  • pornographic images
  • any article that they reasonably suspect has been, or is likely to be, used to commit an offence, injure a person or damage property
  • any item which the school rules specify as banned and able to be searched for (these must be listed in the school rules, so you should be able to ask for this information).

Searches using scans and metal detectors

Schools have a separate power to require pupils to walk through a metal detector (or use a hand-held one) before they enter the school. This is based on their duty to ensure the safety of students, staff and visitors by preventing weapons from entering school grounds.

All pupils can be scanned, even if they have done nothing suspicious. However, under the Equality Act 2010, scans can’t be imposed in a way that discriminates against anyone based on any of the nine protected characteristics. This means that no one can be scanned just because of one of these characteristics (e.g. just because of their race or religion).

It also means that scan policies which seem neutral but actually disadvantage one group with a protected characteristic, may also be unlawful. For example, if the scan policy is focused on those who are wearing headgear, this will disadvantage those who wear head coverings for religious reasons, such as a hijab. This is called indirect discrimination.

Schools are allowed to deny entry to pupils who refuse to be scanned or who are found to be carrying weapons; however, refusing to be scanned does not provide automatic grounds for a search. Any search must still be carried out in line with the powers listed above.

When does an appropriate adult need to be involved?

Whenever a pupil is searched, there should always be at least two adults present.

If the pupil is being searched by a member of staff, there must be a second member of staff present to witness the search. This is a legal requirement. The staff member conducting the search should be the same sex as the pupil, and it can only be an outer layer search.

There is a lawful exception if the member of staff carrying out the search reasonably believes there is a risk of serious harm if the search is not carried out urgently and there is not time to find another staff member.

If a pupil is strip-searched by the police, an appropriate adult must be present. This is a legal requirement.

There is a similar lawful exception if the police officer carrying out the search reasonably believes there is an urgent need for the search to take place immediately (generally, a risk of serious harm) and not enough time for the appropriate adult to attend.

For an outer layer search conducted by the police, an appropriate adult isn’t a legal requirement. However, a school may be breaching its duty to look after the pupil’s well-being if they don’t provide one. Therefore, there still should be another adult present.

Searches of trans or non-binary pupils

There is no specific guidance on searches of trans or non-binary pupils by school staff.  However, gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Refusing to acknowledge a transgender person’s transition and therefore refusing them the chance to choose the sex of the person searching them, may be considered discrimination.

The guidance for police officers carrying out searches of trans or non-binary people is more detailed. You can read more about this in our guide on the rights of trans and non-binary people when arrested.

Who can be an appropriate adult?

An appropriate adult is someone trusted by the pupil, who is expected to:

  • support and advise the child during the search;
  • call out police actions which seem unreasonable or unfair;
  • help the child communicate with the police when they want to; and
  • help the child understand their rights and ensure those rights are protected.

For children, the first choice for an appropriate adult should be a parent or guardian. Government guidance requires schools to notify a pupil’s parents or guardian if they have been subjected to a strip search, and what the outcome of that search is.

If the parents or guardians are unavailable, or if it is not practical for them to attend in time, then a social worker should be the next choice for an appropriate adult. If neither option is available, other trusted adults can stand in as appropriate adults, including a teacher. However, a police officer can never be the appropriate adult.

Standing up for your rights

You can make a police complaint, or a complaint against the school if you feel you have been:

  • searched on unreasonable grounds; and/or
  • subjected to unreasonable or excessive force during the search; and/or;
  • searched in a way that discriminated against you directly or indirectly.

You may also wish to explore taking legal action, with help from a lawyer who specialises in actions against the police and public authorities and/or children’s rights.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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