For several years, teachers have been grappling with their right to search pupils who they suspect are carrying illicit drugs or weapons at school. At the core of their concern is the need to strike a balance between the right of all pupils to be safe and the right of individuals not to be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure.
Achieving that has been given a heightened relevance by knife attacks on at least one teacher.
In response, the Ministry of Education in 2011 published guidelines covering search and seizure in schools. Now, they are about to be superseded by provisions in an amendment to the Education Act. Unfortunately, these err by tilting the balance too far towards the rights of the individual pupil at the expense of the wider school.
The legislation, which is now before a select committee, allows teachers to ask a pupil to surrender an item they believe is in his or her possession if it is likely to endanger others. But, say principals, a pupil could refuse to hand over that item and flee the school before the police arrive.
The effect of the legislation, they say, will be to bar teachers from searching pupils or any bag they are carrying. The only avenue open to them is the ability to search property owned by the school, such as lockers and desks. And the only sanction for refusing to hand over a weapon or drugs is the wholly unsatisfactory one of suspension.
The principals are right to be concerned. The Government will be making teachers' policing of drugs and weapons far more problematic. And any reduction of their ability to search and seize must surely make schools less safe for other pupils. If teachers have a reasonable cause to think pupils are carrying weapons or drugs, they should surely be able to search them. The presence of that proper cause renders mute any concerns about breaching the Bill of Rights Act.
The legislation is on firmer ground in outlawing the use of sniffer dogs to search randomly for drugs. A number of schools have been conducting blanket drug searches of pupils, saying this represents a substantial deterrent. Shirley Boys High School, for example, has been searched twice a year by dogs.
That may, indeed, be a discouragement, but it also represents a breach of pupils' civil rights because of the random nature of the searches and the absence of just cause.
The police acknowledged as much more than a year ago when they refused to carry out random sniffer-dog searches following legal advice from their lawyers.
Since then, their help for schools with searches has been conditional on evidence of pupils carrying weapons or drugs.
While such intrusive search methods need to be restricted, it is folly to limit teachers' search and seizure powers when there is an imminent threat of danger or harm to other pupils.
The Secondary Principals Association says more weapons are being brought to school, and suspensions and stand-downs for drug offences are increasing. And, according to a Post Primary Teachers Association survey, at least two secondary teachers are seriously assaulted by pupils every school day.
In such an environment, it is odd to be placing greater restrictions on teachers when Britain, for example, has been handing them greater powers to ensure schools are safe and ordered places which provide the best possible environment for learning.
This country, too, should be tilting the balance towards teachers, not against them. Surely they can be trusted to decide when there are reasonable grounds for searching a pupil for drugs or weapons.