Cases of pupils bringing weapons into schools occur all too frequently and many weapons are confiscated each year in schools around the UK, according to Martin Hodgson.

A Government publication, Screening, Searching and Confiscation — Advice for Headteachers, Staff and Governing Bodies, provides guidance about how schools should tackle the problem of weapons in schools.

The guidance clarifies the powers to target the bringing of weapons into school. It states that all schools should have behaviour policies outlawing weapons and setting out how the school will deal with searches.

With-consent searches

Under common law, schools are allowed to search pupils with their consent for any item which is banned under behaviour policies, including weapons. They are not required to have formal written consent from the pupil.

If the pupil refuses, the school staff can apply an appropriate punishment as set out in the school’s behaviour policy. They can also insist on a without-consent search.

Without-consent searches

Schools have statutory powers to search a pupil without his or her consent if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the pupil has any of the following items:

  • knives or weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs and stolen items

  • tobacco and cigarette papers, fireworks and pornographic images

  • 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

  • any item banned by the school rules.

Examples of “reasonable grounds for suspicion” are that a teacher may have heard pupils talking about the item or they might notice suspicious behaviour.

Schools should normally only use the power of without-consent searches as a last resort. Where staff suspect that a pupil is carrying a weapon, they should ask them to surrender the weapon or consent to a search.

If the pupil refuses, a Head or member of staff authorised by the Head can conduct a search without consent. Two members of staff must be present: a searcher and a witness. Both must be of the same sex as the pupil searched and must be school staff. However, the guidance states that staff can carry out a search of a pupil of the opposite sex and without a witness present in exceptional circumstances — where it is reasonably believed there is a risk of serious harm if the search is not conducted immediately and where it is not reasonably practicable to summon another member of staff.

Authorised staff

Heads can decide who to authorise to use these powers. Staff must agree to the role and, other than security staff, may refuse.

There is no requirement to provide authorisation in writing or for a member of staff to be trained before undertaking a without-consent search. However, a Head should consider whether any additional training is required to enable him or her to carry out these responsibilities.

During the search

The power to search without consent enables a personal search, involving removal of outer clothing and searching of pockets, but not an intimate search going further than that, which only a person with more extensive powers (eg a police officer) can do.

Where the pupil refuses to remove outer clothing, the searcher can use reasonable force to remove, for example, an overcoat. Staff must not require a searched pupil to remove, and must not themselves remove, clothes beneath outerwear.

Use of force

All school staff have the power to use reasonable force to prevent pupils committing an offence, injuring themselves or others, or damaging property, and to maintain good order and discipline in the classroom.

Heads and authorised staff can use reasonable force when searching a pupil without consent for knives or weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs, stolen items, tobacco and cigarette papers, fireworks, pornographic images or articles that have been, or could be, used to commit an offence or cause harm. Such force cannot be used to search for items banned under the school rules. The guidance emphasises that the power to search is not a duty and should only be used where staff judge that it is safe to do so. If a school suspects a pupil is carrying a weapon and decides a search would not be safe, it should call the police.

The power to seize

Section 91 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 empowers a member of school staff to confiscate, retain or dispose of a pupil’s property as a disciplinary penalty, where reasonable to do so. Any article thought to be a weapon must be passed to the police.

Staff liability

The power to search pupils without consent and confiscate knives or other weapons is a statutory power and, as long as staff act lawfully, they will have a robust legal defence.

Liaising with parents

The guidance contains little detail about liaising with parents. It does, however, state that schools:

  • are not required to inform parents before a search takes place or to seek their consent

  • have no legal obligation to make or keep a record of a search

  • should inform the individual pupil’s parents or guardians about searches, though there is no legal requirement to do so.

In practice, it is likely that schools will want to inform and work with parents whether or not a weapon is found, and to keep records. In addition, the school governing body will undoubtedly want to monitor searches conducted and their results.

Screening

Calls for routine weapons screening in schools have been made over the years and the law does allow schools to require pupils to undergo screening by a walk-through or hand-held metal detector even if they do not suspect them of having a weapon and without their consent, if necessary. This type of screening, without physical contact, is not subject to the same conditions as apply to the powers to search without consent.

If a pupil refuses to be screened, the school may refuse to have the pupil on the premises. In such cases, the school has not excluded the pupil and the absence should be classed as unauthorised absence.

Prevention

Powers to screen and search without consent should be applied with care and within a framework of safety policies agreed by school governors, senior leadership teams and staff, and communicated to parents. Schools strive to maintain relationships of trust between pupils and teachers and will want to ensure that the problem of weapons does not threaten that relationship.

Many believe that the best way to keep weapons out of schools is to educate pupils in better behaviour and in the dangers of carrying a knife by effective prevention campaigns. The aim of these should be to help pupils resolve conflicts without violence and to know more about the dangers of, and penalties for, carrying a weapon.

Last reviewed 15 February 2013