The Ministry of Education and Research has, after years of debates, secured the government’s approval for draft legislation to determine situations in which teachers have the right to search students.
Amendments to the basic and secondary schools act plan to allow teachers to confiscate illegal or prohibited substances and items. The latter include guns and explosives but also alcohol and drugs.
Teachers would be able to search students, their backpacks and lockers in situations that warrant such precautions and provided there is probable cause. A witness will have to be present for searches and results needs to be recorded in writing.
Teachers or other trained school staff would be allowed to search students against their will in extreme cases but only if students refuse to cooperate completely.
“It is clear that no matter the training, a teacher is not a police officer. The police have to be brought in as soon as possible to avoid the situation ending badly for all involved,” said Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center).
Even though Reps said the measures would not be used to persecute students, not everyone is happy with the bill. Chairman of the Association of Estonian Student Representative Bodies Marcus Ehasoo said it remains unclear why the bill is needed – several schools have in-house rules to regulate teacher-student rights, meaning that teachers already have tools for calling students to order in case of problems.
“Hence the question why do we want to give one interest group, teachers, additional rights while leaving the other side with more questions,” Ehasoo said.
“The association supports school security, but we cannot support the bill in a situation where its effects have not been explained. That is why it would not create an atmosphere of security for students but one of uncertainty,” he added.
One of the authors of the bill, advisor at the ministry’s schools network department Jürgen Rakaselg said that these kinds of matters cannot be regulated in internal rules of schools and must exist on the level of legislation. Such provisions would be null and void in in-house rulebooks.
Rakaselg added that the amendment will not result in an avalanche of searches. “Verbal persuasion, ascertainment of actual circumstances will remain the first and primary step. Ideally, it could be enough,” he said.
The bill has been a long time coming: the initial plan for the amendment came out of the ministry in 2015. Estonia had been shocked by a school shooting in Viljandi where a student shot their teacher a few months prior.
Even though that was not the only motivation for the bill, it had become clear by then – as evidenced by experiences of neighboring Finland and Sweden – school security needs to be paid more attention.
At first, the bill failed to be approved by the interior and justice ministries as well as the justice chancellor. Institutions found that teachers cannot be turned into assistant police officers.
The ministry tried again. Just how sensitive the subject is shows in that it took 18 months to decide whether these rights need to be provided on the legislative level.
The latest version of the bill is a long-sought compromise: teachers will not be turned into law enforcement officers; their rights and obligations will be strictly regulated. The government decided to forward the bill to the Riigikogu yesterday.
If passed, the law will enter into force from September 1, 2019.