WCED releases guidelines on search and seizures for schools

Safe and secure learning environments are essential if we are to ensure that quality education is being delivered. 

However, the reality is that some learners do come to school in possession of dangerous objects or liquor and illegal drugs, despite the fact that our Western Cape Provincial School Education Act clearly states that no person may bring any dangerous objects, alcohol or illegal drugs onto the school premises during or after school hours. 

When formulating the new Western Cape Provincial School Education Act, the Western Cape Government found it necessary to strengthen the policy around random searches of learners at schools. The intention of this policy is to restrict incidents of violence and use of illegal substances by learners at school, thus creating a suitable and safe school environment. 

In January 2011, the new Act was passed which provided clearly defined powers to conduct search and seizure operations at schools. 

While many of our school principals and educators are aware of the policy, many of them are hesitant to carry out such searches in fear of not complying with the relevant law. 

Therefore, the WCED has now released to schools specific guidelines for random search and seizures at schools which set out processes and procedures by which random search and seizure should be carried out by principals or their delegates at school in order to reduce and contain the incidents of violence by learners at school. 

The guidelines state that any principal or his or her delegate may search any learner, or the property of any learner, for any dangerous object, alcoholic liquor or illegal drug, if the principal reasonably suspects the presence of a dangerous object, alcoholic liquor or an illegal drug on the school premises or during a school activity. 

The guidelines set out and explain various scenarios on when and how a search can and should take place. For instance, where there is a suspicion that learners have dangerous objects or illegal substances in their school bags or lockers, the random search will be directed at the learners’ school bags and lockers only and may not be extended to their bodies. However, where there is a suspicion that learners are carrying dangerous objects, alcohol, or illegal drugs in their pockets or elsewhere in their clothing, only their clothing and pockets may be searched, and not their property (such as school bags and lockers). 

Body searches can be taken if there is reasonable suspicion. The search must be conducted in a private area and the learner is not required to remove any clothing other than outer clothing and the searches need to be conducted by someone who is the same gender as the learner and in the presence of another member of staff who is also of the same gender as the learner. 

If there is reasonable and reliable evidence that a learner is concealing a dangerous object or illegal substance in the body of that particular learner, the principal may request a member of the South African Police Services to conduct a more extensive search of that learner’s person, which may entail the removal of clothing. 

The guidelines also clearly state that schools must designate two educators, one female and one male to perform the search and seizure function in case the principal is not available. These names must be recorded in the log book so that there is certainty about whose responsibility it is to act in the principal’s absence. 

Conducting searches is not always easy. Some learners refuse to be searched. Therefore, in order to assist principals in dealing with unwilling learners, the guidelines clearly state that the parent of learners should be contacted and informed that the learner is unwilling to co-operate in a lawful search and seizure procedure as provided for by the Act. 

If the parent instructs the learner to co-operate then a search can take place. However, if the learner or the parent refuses to co-operate, the matter and the learner will be handed over to the police so that they may conduct a search in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act. The outcome of such a search is linked to a Criminal Court Process with the possibility of criminal prosecution. 

Many of our school principals are unsure as how to proceed once a weapon, or illegal substance in found. Therefore, the guidelines clearly indicate the process once the object or substance has been seized, which include, clearly labelling the object or substance, stating where it was found, the name of the learner, the date and time of the search and seizure, an incidence reference number, the person who conducted the search and any other details related to the incident. 

The object or substance must then be recorded in the school record book and handed over to a member of the South African Police Services. If, for instance, SAPS cannot collect the object or substance immediately, the principal is required to take it to the nearest police station where they must receive an official receipt. 

The guidelines also offer other advice such as, for instance, if a learner makes a request to use the bathroom before they are searched or asks to make a phone call. 

We believe that these guidelines will now help assist our principals and educators in carrying out such random search and seizures. By carrying out these practical steps as contained in the document, we are also ensuring that the learner’s rights are being protected at all times.

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