The question the Supreme Court considered in its decision was: does the exclusionary rule in the Fourth Amendment apply to public school officials?
To answer that question, the Court had to consider the privacy rights of the student and the right of school officials to maintain an optimal educational environment.
Briefly, the case involved a female student at a New Jersey High School. Accordingly, a teacher found T.L.O. and her friend smoking in a school restroom. The teacher reported the incident to the school principal. In the principal's office, T.L.O. refused to admit to smoking, even after her friend confessed.
Suspicious, the principal searched T.L.O.'s purse. In it, he found cigarettes and rolling paper. He suspected that T.L.O. also smoked marijuana. Upon further searching of the purse, the principal came across drug paraphernalia and a grass-like substance in a plastic bag. T.L.O. was eventually taken to the police station, where she confessed to participating in the sale of marijuana.
During trials in state courts, T.L.O.'s lawyer argued that her Fourth Amendment rights were denied her.
The case eventually came before the United States Supreme Court. The Court did set a new standard regarding Fourth Amendment rights. It decided that:
1) School officials only need to have reasonable suspicion to search a student's possessions. They do not need probable cause (which includes obtaining a warrant).
2) "Reasonable suspicion" is based on two factors: that the search is justified at its inception and that it must be related to the circumstances that warrant it.
The Supreme Court decided that school officials had reasonable cause to search T.L.O.'s purse. The search was justified at its inception because T.L.O. had been caught smoking. Furthermore, the discovery of rolling paper provided further cause for the principal to continue in his search of the student's purse.