Applying Ethical Constructs to Legal Cases

This chapter shows how the Best Interests’ Model (BIM) may be applied to practical, authentic situations arising from court decisions. The analysis is not presented to give “the answer” but is rather phrased in terms that challenge readers and force them to think deeply about these issues and perhaps to understand that not all school officials or their constituents will necessarily agree on what is ethical behavior or what is in the best interests of the student.

The purpose of this chapter and of this book is not to convince the judicial system to change, perhaps to become more moral, more ethical in its reasoning. Although such discussions may have merit as well as important policy implications, these issues are well beyond the purview of our discussion and this work is best left to others who specialize in legal discourse. Rather, the purpose here is to address what is, what options school leaders have, and ethical courses of action.

Figure 6.1 illustrates different decision-making points that school leaders meet as they confront the law and approach ethical issues that may arise after legal action is taken. This chapter and the cases presented in this book focus primarily on the third category, “If the Law Permits,” and how school officials use their discretion in ethical ways.

Immediately following Figure 6.1 is a summary of the Cornfield by Lewis v. Consolidated School District (1993) decision. This case is used for illustrative purposes. A sample analysis is also provided. However, readers should keep in mind that there are many acceptable ways to analyze each case and that these various analyses strike at the heart of this book’s reasoning and goal for the reader.

Does the Law:

  • • Require or Prohibit Actions (Must Do)
  • • Permit Actions (Can Do)

If the Law Requires:

Obey the Law

Ask whether it is a good law. If not, options are:

> Lobby to get the law changed

> Civil Disobedience (but accept the consequences)

Compare the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law

> Use administrative discretion

If the Law Permits:


  • • Assess nature and extent of administrative discretion
  • • Even if action is legal, is it ethical? Apply ethical paradigms
  • • Is the action in the best interests of the student? Apply the best interests model.

Figure 6.1 Legal and Ethical Decision Points Illustration by Marilyn Begley, 2005


SCHOOL DISTRICT, 991 F.2d 1316 (7th Cir. 1993)

On March 7, 1991 teacher’s aide Kathy Stacy found Brian Cornfield outside Carl Sandburg High School, in Illinois, during the school day, in violation of the disciplinary code. She reported this incident to both his teacher, Richard Spencer, and the disciplinary dean, Richard Frye. At the same time, she expressed to both men that she had observed an “unusual bulge” in the crotch of Brian’s sweatpants. Later that day, a teacher, Joyce Lawler, and another teacher’s aide, Lori Walsh, reported the same observation, that Brian seemed “too well endowed.”

Brian Cornfield was enrolled in the behavior disorder program at Carl Sandburg and in recent months his name had been presented to Spencer and Frye in connection with both the sale and distribution of illegal drugs. Brian had a history' of difficulty’. In fact, both men understood Cornfield to have failed to complete a drug rehabilitation program and not long before, Cornfield was found with a live bullet at school. Additionally, one student reported seeing Cornfield smoke marijuana. Cornfield’s bus driver had separately reported that he suspected Cornfield of smoking marijuana on the school bus. Another student claimed on a separate occasion that Cornfield had drugs on school grounds. Even Cornfield himself had repeatedly spoken about either dealing or using drugs and at one time reportedly told Kathy Stacy that he had “crotched” drugs to avoid detection when the police raided his mother’s house.

With this history in mind, Spencer and Frye observed Cornfield for the rest of March 7 and again on March 8. It was this next day that Spencer and Frye observed the same “unusual bulge,” as well as a pattern of suspicious behavior. Cornfield appeared to act nervous and withdrawn. Based on prior tips, Cornfield’s past admissions, and current suspicious behavior, Spencer and Frye decided to act. In the attempt to keep Cornfield from exposing other students to illegal drugs, Spencer and Frye stopped Cornfield as he was about to board the school bus for home and asked him to accompany them to Frye’s office.

In Frye’s office, both Frye and Spencer expressed their concerns to Brian and their belief that he was “crotching” illegal drugs, i.e., hiding drugs in the crotch area of his pants. Cornfield responded by becoming extremely agitated and yelling obscenities at both men. By this time Spencer and Frye had decided that Cornfield should be searched. They decided that a pat down of Cornfield’s crotch area would be too intrusive and concluded a strip-search to be the more appropriate means of finding any illegal drugs on his person. Cornfield requested that his mother, Janet Lewis, be called. Cornfield’s mother denied permission for Spencer and Frye to conduct the search.

Nevertheless, Spencer and Frye escorted Cornfield to the boys’ locker room, made sure that the room was empty and locked the door to insure privacy. Both men stood at least 10 feet away from Brian and asked him to change into his gym clothes. While Cornfield was changing, Spencer and Frye visually inspected Cornfield’s naked body and his clothing. At no time did either man touch the student. Cornfield was then allowed to change back into his street clothes. No evidence of illegal drugs was found during the search. While Spencer and Frye stressed the privacy afforded to Cornfield during the search, Cornfield later asserted that Spencer and Frye made him disrobe in a place where other students could see him. Both sides, however, agree that there were no other students who did so. After the search Frye recalled the school bus and Cornfield was brought home. Cornfield and his mother sued the school district for monetary damages, claiming that the search violated Cornfield’s Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution.

Both the federal district and appellate courts found no basis for a claim that the search violated Cornfield’s Fifth Amendment rights. Similarly, both courts found that the search conducted by Spencer and Frye was not in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In particular, the courts found the search to be reasonable based on Cornfield’s history of problems, including tips from others and his own past admission of drug use and possession, combined with the unusual bulge in his pants and his suspicious behavior. The fact that school officials found no illegal drugs during the search was not at issue, because the evidence prior to the search made it reasonable to assume that Cornfield was in violation of the law. Furthermore, both the district and appellate courts found that the search was not excessively intrusive. Although both opinions stressed the possible negative impact such a search might have on a 16-year-old, given the suspicion of Spencer and Frye (that Cornfield was “crotching” drugs), the search that was conducted was far less intrusive than a pat down might have been, and involved no touching and no body cavity search.

Questions for Discussion

  • 1. How might one view this case and the court’s decision from a justice perspective?
  • 2. Was Brian treated in a caring manner? Why or why not?
  • 3. How might this case be viewed through the lens of critique?
  • 4. What would the profession expect of Dean Frye or Mr. Spencer?
  • 5. Through a best interests’ perspective, was Brian afforded his rights or shown his responsibilities? In this respect, how might this situation have been handled differently? Better? Was Brian afforded respect? Dignity? Why or why not?
  • 6. What would you have done in this situation if you were Mr. Spencer? Dean Frye?

One Possible Analysis*

From a legal perspective, this decision falls into the category of law that permits but does not require. Thus, what the court is saying is that the school officials legally strip-searched Brian, and other cases with similar fact patterns and administrative actions in the Seventh Circuit would also likely be legal unless the state or school district prohibits it. What the court is not saying is that school officials must strip-search students. School officials have great discretion in this matter.

Indeed, the school district may enact policies and the state may enact laws that prohibit strip-searching and thus grant the student greater protection. For example, the Cornfield decision came from the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Strip-searching is legal in Illinois and Indiana, but not in Wisconsin, which has a state statute prohibiting these actions. Thus, if Brian had been from Wisconsin instead of

Illinois, the search would not have been legal. .Also, it would not have been legal if Brian’s school district had had a policy against it.

Now, let us examine this case according to the four ethical frames. From a justice perspective, the school officials’ actions might well be considered a moral decision. Drugs present a real scourge to our society, destroying the lives of many young people. One could say that the ends justify the means, that we should consider the greater good for the greater number. From a caring perspective, one might note that the school administrator deeply cared for all the students in his school and believed that a student possessing drugs was a threat to the others’ security. In addition, the search was conducted with care and consideration. Brian was never touched, and he stood at a distance from school authorities during the disrobing.

Critical theorists would ask who is making these rules and who is enforcing them. Clearly, the student was in a powerless position, as was his mother, who refused consent to the search but was ignored. From a community perspective, one might argue that searching Brian sends a message both to the school community and to the larger community that officials are determined to keep schools safe, that drugs will not be tolerated, and that the school has “get-tough policies” against such use. Community pressure, depending on the makeup of the community, may focus on these strong policies or may support student rights. Community as a process may involve others in decision making about Brian’s treatment.

The view of a professional ethic’s BIM forces us to examine more deeply how these decisions affect students. For example, observing an adolescent boy’s crotch for two days to see if his bulge is changing calls into question issues of respect, as do the disregard of his mother’s refusal of consent and subjection of Brian to a total nude search by state officials (school authorities). The facts of the case show few efforts to hear Brian’s voice. Indeed, the only indication we have here is that he yelled obscenities.

Some may characterize Brian as a “bad kid.” Yet, within the framework of the BIM, one must question what efforts school officials have made to assume responsibility for Brian’s behavior and in turn to model responsible actions for Brian. Certainly, Brian does not have the right to use drugs or to bring drugs to school, but he does have the right to be afforded help if he has a drug problem. Finally, the actions of school authorities in this case provide a valuable lesson to other students, that is, suspected drug use will result in punitive actions and serious invasion of privacy rights. And, at least in some jurisdictions, the courts will condone this invasion even if nothing is found.

The BIM takes on added meaning when applied to real situations. What follows are summaries of several court decisions that carry with them significant ethical implications.


1. This analysis is derived from an earlier article by the author. See Stefkovich and O’Brien (2004).


Cornfield by Lewis v. Consolidated School District No. 230, 991 F.2d 1316 (7th Cir. 1993).

Stefkovich, J. A., & O'Brien, G. M. (2004). Best interests of the student: An ethical model. Journal of Educational Administration, 42(2), 197-214.

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