School search powers limited
School principals fear they could soon be powerless to confiscate weapons and illicit drugs from pupils, under changes to the Education Act.
The Education Amendment Bill, now before Parliament, includes changes to the surrender, retention, search and seizure powers held by schools.
Under the proposed changes, teachers would not be allowed to search pupils or their property but would be able to search property owned by the school, such as lockers and desks.
Dogs would no longer be allowed to search schools for drugs, and schools would not be able to test pupils for drug use.
Schools could suspend pupils for refusing to hand over a weapon or drugs.
New Zealand Secondary Principals' Council chairman Allan Vester said the rules on searching pupils had been "clarified" to the point where teachers would not be able to search pupils at all.
"This effectively meant if a teacher saw a student putting a knife, drugs or stolen property in their bags and asked them to hand it over, the student could just say ‘no'," he said.
"If you know a student has a weapon, they won't hand it over and the police don't arrive in time, then they are leaving the site carrying something you know is a weapon."
Principals would probably choose to act for the safety of other pupils and staff, he said.
"If it is the difference between breaking the law and someone being stabbed, I am sure principals will step in for the safety of their students and staff and break the law," he said.
"In those cases, many principals will seize the bag and lock it up."
Shirley Boys' High School principal John Laurenson said the bill was unlikely to change the school's existing search procedures, but he was concerned about not being able to bring drug dogs through the school.
Shirley Boys' High is searched twice a year by drug dogs.
"We see that as a deterrent," Laurenson said.
"The boys know it is happening; they just don't know when it will be. It sends a clear warning to students that that type of behaviour is not permitted."
New Zealand Principals' Federation president Paul Drummond said the amendment had been scrutinised by secondary principals, who wanted to balance the rights of pupils with the safety of the wider school community.
He feared the bill had gone too far, risked putting pupils and teachers in danger, and was "not going to work".
"It's clear the intent was to not only protect students' rights but to give parameters for schools," he said.
Many principals had made submissions to the Ministry of Education about the bill, and he hoped changes would be made.
Ministry schooling policy group manager Frances Kelly said the amendments aligned with government regulations.
"It is considered necessary to ensure schools know what they can and can't do in relation to school search and seizure," Kelly said.
"It takes a reasonable approach that gives teachers sufficient powers to keep their students safe and well managed while not breaching the rights of those students.
"It has been assumed that the changes will result in little change occurring in how schools approach the types of situations that require search and seizure."
The bill is open to submissions until January 24.
What has been amended?
In 2011, the Ministry of Education released guidelines covering search and seizure in schools in response to safety concerns.
However, there is no statutory basis for search and seizure powers in schools, and the ministry website says there is "still a lack of clarity about the responsibilities of school boards and what powers are appropriate in the schooling context".
Under the Education Amendment Bill:
- If a teacher has reasonable grounds to believe a pupil has an item in their possession that is likely to endanger others, they can ask the pupil to surrender that item.
- They can ask a pupil to surrender an electronic device and retain it for a "reasonable period".
Under the proposed changes a teacher cannot:
- Search any pupil.
- Search any bag in a pupil's control.
- Use physical force against a pupil.
- Require a pupil to provide a bodily sample.
- Use a sniffer dog to search for drugs.
If a pupil refuses to reveal, produce or surrender an item, a teacher can take any reasonable disciplinary steps to manage their behaviour.