Searching, Screening and Confiscation in Schools: Department of Education Guidance

The Department for Education has updated its guidance on Searching, Screening and Confiscation in Schools. This blog summarises the guidance and examines the changes and updates that have come into effect.

Purpose of the Guidance  

This guidance is used to explain the screening, searching and confiscating powers a school has, ensuring that headteachers and members of staff have the confidence to use these powers and that/ensure schools are calm, safe and supportive environments to learn and work.  

The publication will also provide advice to headteachers and staff on their legal duties when it comes to their screening, searching and confiscating powers and includes statutory guidance that schools must have regard.

You can read the full guidance HERE.  

Searching 

Searching can be a vital measure to safeguard and promote staff and student welfare as well as maintain high standards of behaviour within the organisation. Headteachers and staff have a statutory power to search a pupil or their possessions where they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the pupil may have a prohibited item. 

The list of prohibited items includes:  

  • Knives and weapons 
  • Alcohol 
  • Illegal drugs 
  • Stolen items 
  • Any article that the member of staff reasonably suspects has been or is likely to be used 
    • To commit an offence, or 
    • To cause personal injury to or damage to property of; any person (including the pupil).  
  • An article specified in regulations 
  • Tobacco and cigarette papers 
  • Fireworks; and  
  • Pornographic images 

If a student is in possession of a prohibited item, it may mean that the student is involved, or at risk of being involved, in anti-social or criminal behaviour including gang involvement or child criminal exploitation. A search may be vital in identifying students who may benefit from early help or a referral to the local authority.  

Roles and Responsibilities within the School 

Only the headteacher, or a member of staff authorised by the headteacher, can carry out a search. The headteacher should oversee the organisation’s practice of searching to ensure appropriate searching is maintained which safeguards the welfare of all students and staff. Likewise, headteachers must ensure that staff are trained on how to lawfully and safely search a student who is not co-operating. Staff also need to understand their rights and the rights of the student being searched.  

The DSL should be informed of any searching incidents and if any safeguarding risks have been discovered.  

Before a Search 

An assessment should be made of how urgent the need for a search is and the possible risks to the other students and staff. Before any search takes place, staff must explain to the student in question why they are being searched, how and where the search will take place and give them an opportunity to ask questions.  

If the student does not wish to co-operate, the staff member should consider why this is. Reasons may include:  

  • The student is in possession of a prohibited item 
  • The student does not understand the instruction 
  • The student is unaware of what a search may involve 
  • The student has had a previous distressing experience of being searched 

If the student continues to refuse to co-operate, the staff member can: 

  • Sanction the pupil in line with the school’s behaviour policy 
  • If the search is not urgent, the member of staff should seek the support of the headteacher, during this time the student should be supervised  
  • If the pupil still refuses to co-operate, the member of staff should assess whether it is appropriate to use reasonable force to conduct the search 

During a Search 

The search may only take place on school grounds or where the staff member has lawful control or charge of the pupil, for example on a school trip. The law states the member of staff conducting the search must be of the same sex as the pupil being searched. There must be another member of staff present as a witness to the search.  

The only exception to this rule is: 

  • The member of staff carrying out the search reasonably believes there is risk that serious harm will be caused to a person if the search is not carried out as a matter of urgency; and  
  • In the time available, it is not reasonably practicable for the search to be carried out by a member of staff who is the same sex as the pupil or it is not reasonably practicable for the search to be carried out in the presence of another member of staff 

The staff member may search the student's outer clothing, pockets, possessions desks or locker. The student must not be asked to remove any clothing other than outer clothing (any item of clothing not worn wholly next to the skin or immediately over a garment that is being worn as underwear, as well as hats, shoes, boots or scarves). 

Strip Searching 

A strip search involves the removal of more than outer clothing. Strip searches can only be carried out by police officers, however; school staff retain a duty of care to the students involved.  

Before calling the police, staff should access and balance the risks of a strip search on the student's mental and physical wellbeing. Unless there is an immediate risk of harm staff should inform a parent of the pupil suspected of concealing an item in advance of the search.  

After the Search 

No matter if any items have been found as a result of the search, staff should consider if the reasons for the search, the search itself, or the outcome of the search gives cause for concerns that the student is suffering, or is likely to suffer harm, as well as if any support is needed.  

Recording Searches  

All searches by staff or police should be recorded in the school safeguarding reporting system, including if an item was found or not. The following information should be recorded: 

  • The date, time and location of the search 
  • Which pupil was searched 
  • Who conducted the search and any other adults or pupils present 
  • What was being searched for 
  • The reason for searching 
  • What items, if any, were found 
  • What follow-up action was taken as a consequence of the search

If a school is experiencing a high volume of searches, they should consider whether the searches fall disproportionately on any particular groups of pupils, such as by gender or ethnicity.  

Child Q Case Practice Review

In 2020, Child Q, a Black secondary school-age female child, was strip-searched by female police officers. The search, which involved the exposure of Child Q’s intimate body parts, took place on school premises, without an appropriate adult present and with the knowledge that Child Q was menstruating. 

A case practice review determined that the Department for Education should review and revise its guidance on Searching, Screening and Confiscation (2018) to include more explicit references to safeguarding and to amend its use of inappropriate language and include much stronger references to the importance of keeping records and engaging parents as part of best safeguarding practice.

You can read our full blog here on the Child Q Case Practice Review.

Screening 

Screening can help provide reassurance to pupils, staff and parents that the school is taking measures to create a calm, safe and supportive environment. Screening is the use of a walk-through or hand-held metal detector to scan students for weapons before they enter the school.  

Before screening starts the headteacher is encouraged to consult with local police who may be able to provide advice about whether the installation of these devices is appropriate. If screening is introduced students and parents should be informed in advance.  

Confiscation  

If a search is carried out, authorised members of staff can confiscate any item that: 

  • They believe poses a risk to staff or pupils 
  • Is prohibited, or identified in the school rules for which a search can be made 
  • Is evidence in relation to an offence 

Prohibited or illegal items are to be dealt with as follows: 

  • Controlled drugs must be delivered to the police  
  • Other substances which are not believed to be controlled should also be delivered to the police 
  • Alcohol, tobacco, cigarette papers or fireworks, may be retained or disposed of but should not return to the pupil  
  • Pornographic images may be disposed of unless the staff member suspects it contributes to a specific offence e.g., it is extreme or an indecent image of a child, in which case it must be delivered to the police as soon as reasonably practicable 
  • Members of staff should never intentionally view any indecent image of a child  
  • Staff must never copy, print, share, store or save such images 
  • Stolen items, must be delivered to the police as soon as reasonably practicable. However, if it is possible to return to the owner this is also acceptable 
  • Weapons or items which are evidence of a suspected offence must be passed to the police as soon as possible 

Electronic Devices 

Electronic devices including mobile phones can contain information which relates to an offence, or which may cause harm to another person. This includes, but is not limited to: 

  • Indecent images of children / nude or semi-nude images 
  • Pornography 
  • Abusive messages, images or videos 
  • Evidence relating to suspected criminal behaviour 

If staff find information, data or files on an electronic device that could put a person at risk they should consider the appropriate safeguarding response.  

Confiscation as a Disciplinary Penalty 

Members of staff may confiscate, retain or dispose of a pupil’s property as a disciplinary penalty, where reasonable to do so. The law protects members of staff from liability in any proceedings brought against them for any loss of, or damage to, any item they have confiscated, provided they acted lawfully 

 

You can read the full guidance HERE.  

Author
Georgia Latief
Marketing Content Manager

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