News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 19, 2011

Proposed policy would allow bus drivers to search students

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Under a proposed policy change, Vigo County School Corp. bus drivers, “under rare circumstances,” would have the right to search students in situations “that involve an immediate threat of harm or danger” to those on the bus.

Another proposed change would bar attorneys from sitting in on a student due process expulsion hearing. If families chose to bring legal counsel, the attorney could be nearby for consultation, but not in the hearing room.

On Monday, the school board discussed proposed changes in policy related to student rights and responsibilities, student searches/interrogations and civility.

The changes take into account changes in the law and clarify wording, said Ray Azar, director of student services. The district consulted with the Indiana School Board Association.

The changes related to bus drivers and due process hearings are among several changes being proposed. Azar explained the changes in detail, which drew several questions from the board.

Under the policy titled “student searches and interrogations,” a proposed change would allow bus drivers to search a student and the student’s belongings if there is an immediate threat of harm or danger to those on the bus. The standard of reasonable suspicion applies.

Reasonable suspicion means “that the person conducting the search has information to reasonably believe that the search will produce a substance or an object that violates a school rule or a law.”    

The district wanted to include bus drivers in the event they are on the road and must immediately respond to an emergency situation, Azar said. The policy change would give them the authority, although they would first have to contact the transportation office and/or student services and receive permission.

“This would be a rare occurrence where something immediately had to be done,” Azar said. Typically, a principal, or other designated staff, conducts such a search.

The school district wanted to include bus drivers, and ISBA recommended the language. The driver might search a book bag or ask the student to empty pockets; there might be a patdown of the exterior of the students’ clothing — as outlined in existing policy —  “but I don’t see that in a normal scenario,” Azar said. “We want this to apply to them if they feel it is necessary.”

Scenarios where a bus driver might conduct a search include a student in possession of a dangerous drug or a weapon, Azar said.

If a driver believed other students were in immediate danger the driver would “have to take other precautions” that might include evacuating the bus, he said.

Azar said he’s not aware of any instance where a student search by a bus driver was necessary, “but we want to be proactive in case something happens.”

Another change clarifies that if a student has a due process expulsion hearing, the family may elect to use an attorney, but the attorney “may not be present in the hearing room. The attorney may be available in a nearby location on the premises for consultation.”

A hearing officer presides, and an attorney is not required, he said.

Occasionally in the past, an attorney has attended and the district has allowed it, Azar said. “It tends to make hearings very lengthy. Sometimes they [attorneys] want to use rules of court, and it’s not a courtroom. Rules in a school hearing are different.”

The presence of an attorney can create “a negative situation,” Azar said.

Typically, a hearing will last 45 minutes to an hour, but there have been times where an attorney was  present and a hearing has lasted three hours.

He described a hearing as a “school procedure” where the purpose is to determine what took place, and students are asked to explain what happened.

If a family appeals a hearing examiner’s decision to the School Board, the family can have an attorney present when meeting with the board, Azar said.

Julie Slavens, attorney with the Indiana School Board Association, said an Indiana court has determined that a student does not have the right to an attorney in a student due process (expulsion) hearing. Upon appeal to a school board, if that occurred, the student probably would be entitled to one, she said.

During Monday’s School Board meeting, officials noted that decisions by Vigo County hearing officers are rarely appealed to the board.

Board member Paul Lockhart suggested that is a credit to Azar’s department and it “indicates fairness” in the process.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.