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Vaping Scenario Shows How the 4th Amendment Applies at School

A student walks to class carrying a backpack concealing e-cigarettes and vaping pods that are illegal for minors to possess and prohibited on campus. What are the student’s constitutional rights when a teacher demands to search the backpack?

This fictional, but realistic, scenario is at the center of a new federal Judiciary education program about students’ Fourth Amendment rights at school. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts developed the program and U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro pilot tested it in her courtroom with students from a nearby school in El Centro, California, where the legal age for vaping is 21.

The epidemic of illegal e-cigarette use at school is a source of friction between students and administrators across the nation, as studies show that one-third of all high school seniors report using a vaping product and the percentage of users is growing quickly. That is in spite of the fact that vaping is illegal in many states for those under 21.

The discussion of underage vaping initially may have captured the participants’ attention, but they went deeper to balance the scope of students’ expectation of privacy at school against the administration’s need to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment.

In Montenegro’s courtroom, some 47 Central Union High School students used prepackaged materials to engage in lively civil discourse about the issues related to their Fourth Amendment rights at school. The ready-to-go resources are available as downloadable documents for use in courtrooms and classrooms nationally. 

Student participation requires no in-class preparation. Law clerk Devin H. Mirchi presented a primer on the Fourth Amendment that gave students the basis for analyzing the legal issues presented in the fictional vaping scenario.

“We wanted to give students a virtual toolbox of skills they need in order to understand and explain different facets of essential Fourth Amendment principles in the fictional case that also apply to their lives every day,” Mirchi said.

During the courtroom action, the students, all of whom deliberated as jurors, listened to attorney volunteers from the Imperial County District Attorney’s Office and the Federal Public Defender’s Office argue New Jersey v. T.L.O., the 1985 landmark Supreme Court case that set the precedent for school search and seizure issues in the fictional vaping scenario.

The program incorporated elements from another, popular national initiative by the Judiciary: civil discourse and decision-making skills used as tools for resolving disputes. At the end of the courtroom event, Montenegro took the students through a reality check quiz and talked with them about a dozen situations they might face that could alter their lives and have legal consequences.

“Students left the courtroom with ground rules for civil discourse they developed with their peers,” Mirchi said. “These rules and decision-making skills will serve them well in their classrooms, communities, and careers for the rest of their lives.”

“Civics education programs make courts more transparent to our community and promote a positive image, which enhances our ability to serve our community at the highest level and maintain the respect and strength of our justice system,” said Montenegro, who is active in civics education and a member of the California Civic Learning Partnerships Committee, whose members conduct civics programs in their respective counties.

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