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? Learn more here.

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 page here.

Ordinary police officers have existing 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 pupil’s 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. This means that, before a search, the officer has to tell the individual:

  • their name
  • their police station
  • that the individual is being detained for a search
  • what they’re searching for
  • that the individual can request a copy of the official record of the search.

It also means that the initial search should only be an outer layer search. This means that they can ask someone to take off outer jackets, hats, etc. but nothing which will reveal skin.

They can only conduct a strip search (e.g. asking someone to take off a t-shirt or anything more than their 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. But this should only be used as a last resort. For example if someone is physically resisting being searched. If they use force which seems unreasonable this could be illegal.

If you believe that you were searched with unreasonable force, or if the officer didn’t explain everything above, we would suggest approaching a solicitor with expertise in public law. You can see our ‘I Need a Lawyer‘ page for information on how to find one.

What is a Safer Schools Police Officer?

Safer Schools Police Officers – or 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

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 for no reason. Nor can they stop you because of your physical appearance, or the fact that you belong to a particular category of people, or have a criminal record.

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.

If you believe that the grounds they give are unreasonable or untrue, we would suggest approaching a solicitor with expertise in public law. You can see our ‘I Need a Lawyer‘ page for information on how to find one.

“Section 60” searches for weapons

Police officers can also search anyone within a certain area for a weapon, without the need for reasonable grounds to suspect that person. These are known as “Section 60” powers because the power comes from section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

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 and guidance is unclear on this point.

Once again, only outer layer searches can be conducted without reasonable grounds. A strip search requires reasonable grounds.

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.

Searches must be based on reasonable grounds and cannot be used for a strip search. It can include searching the pupil’s bag, desk or locker. However, the pupil must be present, as should a second member of staff.

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).

What if a search seems unreasonable?

An individual search, or obtaining authorisation to enter school property, must be based on reasonable grounds. If you believe a search is unreasonable, it might be worth talking to a solicitor with expertise in public law. They can help work out whether you can complain about the search or challenge it in court.

Our ‘I need a lawyer’ page can help you find an expert solicitor.

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. But 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. 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. But refusing to be scanned is not automatic grounds for a search. Any search must still be carried out in line with the powers given 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 little specific guidance on searches of trans or non-binary pupils by school staff. While it seems that it would be in the best interests of the child’s welfare to allow them to self-identify their gender and therefore choose the sex of the searching staff member accordingly, they may not be legally required to do so.

However, gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Refusing to acknowledge a transgender person’s transition may be considered discrimination.

If a transgender pupil is searched in a way which seems to discriminate against them, directly or indirectly, you might choose to talk to a solicitor who specialises in either public law or education law.

The guidance on searches by police offices is more detailed. Read more about searches of trans or non-binary pupils by police officers.

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
  • 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 states that if a pupil is undergoing a strip search, the school should notify their parents or other guardians. They’re not legally required to, but again it might be considered harmful to the child’s welfare if they don’t.

If the parents/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.

What are my rights on this?

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

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