How Far Should School Officials Go?

This story appeared in this morning's PI. The Oak Harbor School Board has rewritten their policy on cell phones to include allowing administrators to search the phones in order to protect the district against possible criminal charges around sexting. It's interesting because there are no real laws against sexting per se but there are laws around sending, receiving or storing photos of minors in a state of nudity on a cell phone (it's a felony).

From the article:

The first reading of the new policy, which was unanimously approved at Monday’s board meeting, states, “By bringing a cell phone and other electronic devices to school or school sponsored events, the student and parents consent to the search of the device when school officials have a reasonable suspicion that such a search will reveal a violation of school rules.”

Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon presented the policy to the board. He pointed out that school officials already have the right to search lockers and backpacks with reasonable suspicion; now they’re simply extending that right to the electronic realm.

Apparently this new policy came from recommendations from a newsletter put out by the Washington State School Directors Association. The idea is that it would protect students and staff and administrators.

One student summed up what is likely to be the feeling among students:

“They say lots of people are suspicious when they’re really not,” Troy Sturdevant, OHHS freshman, added. “There are rumors going around all the time.”

Honestly, I see the issue. Kids simply do not realize the consequences to what could happen if they send off or receive nude photos of classmates. (Clearly, there needs to be a law about sexting in specific because I don't believe the overwhelming majority of these kids need to be labeled as sex offenders for sexting.)

However, I can really see the issue of an overzealous teacher or administrator and the point about rumors. There is a huge amount of talk that zooms through any high school and middle school in a given day. Sadly, I think some kids do get tagged as trouble and can never shake that label. What if administrators confiscate a phone, find no photos but do find evidence of discussion of some other crime? What if a student puts a PIN lock on the phone? Would a student have to open it for them?


seattle citizen said…
I'm a luddite. Got my first basic cell two months ago (and I remember the motorola "brick" phones from the seventies)

But people I know have smart phones and I'm familiar with their capabilities. These devices are integrated with one's entire digital existance. How will school officials justify the required opening of such an intimate, private and oftentimes secured device?

I think cells are very private, unless searched by court order etc. For a school to require access to cells is an invasion of privacy of the utmost degree, and also gives, as you say Melissa, the school access to all sorts of potential "crimes" the kid is up to, which thereby puts the school in an awkward position, to say the least. Is the school now the de facto legal nanny of the kid? Bound to report and correct, say, a child chatting in an adult chatroom? A child drinking at a party off campus at night? Writing innocent yet perhaps erotic poetry to a puppy love?

TMI for a school to deal with, and takes the onus off the LEGAL adults in the kid's life - parents, guardians, aunts, etc
Schools are not the cops.

I say ban the infernal devices from schools. Or, better, jam them during school hours. Any kid under eighteen with a cell, there's a universal, federally authorized ban on the use of cells between 8:00 and 3:00

I've also come to believe, more generally, that schools SHOULD have checkpoints for entry, where all knives, booze, joints, cells, makeup, hair gel, attitude and laziness should be taken, thrown in a bin, no questions asked, and shoveled into the landfill each night.

WV! Glad to hear you're fine; ifine, too!
Tim said…
Seattle Citizen - good points.

WHile I do agree that phones should be banned in schools - and I think most middle schools probably do ban them, there is a problem with jamming them. It is against federal law to build, buy etc any device that jams transmissions. I have looked into it. The only legal option is during a remodel, a building could have various metal strips embedded in the walls, acting as an antenna. No doubt this is why some people get crummy service in some buildings - they have unintentionally created "Faraday Rooms."

But - I do have to say, that schools are already required to report all of the things you mention, whether they find them in a note, overhear a conversation, or confiscate a phone. (In a middle school, since phones are banned to remove the disruption to the classroom, all use is suspicious.) So we already have the nanny state. I have seen many students disciplined for discussing when so-and-so would be beat up (after school), even though the actual fight hasn't yet occured, and wasn't going to occur on school grounds. Think about it - if kids hear this stuff in a school, even if it isn't going to result in a fight, it significantly affects fear in the classroom. Put a bunch of still growing and maturing kids in a public institution and you get a nanny state. It is really the definition.
zb said…
"I say ban the infernal devices from schools. Or, better, jam them during school hours. "

I agree that this would be a better solution than searching the phones -- but the students would have the ability to enter that world by merely leaving their phones at home. This rule seems only to say that the phones can be searched if they bring them to school or school events.

I don't think the phones should be jammed (I'm guessing SC doesn't either, and that it was a pah, we walked to school up hills both ways sort of comment). Jamming phones in schools would prevent everyone from using them, not just students, and students do have legitimate phone uses.

I am not anti-cell phone, only anti-certain uses, and I do think schools should have the right to monitor those uses on their property. If a kid is concerned about the integration with everything, they should buy a phone for use at school, or use their phone minimally.

(BTW, the same concerns can be raised about computers -- for adults as well as children, and I think it's OK to face workplace/schoolplace restrictions that require you to separate your work/private life).
Unknown said…
If the phone is taken out during school then it can be searched. If it is kept put away out of sight and silent, then leave it alone. Just like gum back in the day - if you took it out or chewed it in class, it belonged to the teacher. If you kept it in your pocket and no one knew it was there then there was no problem
I like that idea, Sean. It would probably cut back on unnecessary cell phone use during the school day as well.

I did a thread this summer about administrators getting heat from parents about issues between students that occur off-campus (but during the school year). The issue there was the school (district) inserting itself into a argument between students that happened off campus and not during the school day.

I think school districts and administrators are really trying to figure out how to protect themselves and it seems like they get dinged for doing too much or too little and,at the end of the day, for them it is about liability.
zb said…
"I think school districts and administrators are really trying to figure out how to protect themselves and it seems like they get dinged for doing too much or too little and,at the end of the day, for them it is about liability."

Of course this is true, but in the NY times article that talked about relationships outside of school, it was also clear that the counselors/teachers/principals were also highly invested in the kids. This doesn't surprise me. If a person, who after all, has chosen to become a teacher, spends 5+ hours a day with their kids, all this stuff is going to affect their time with the kids. And, if they spend 5+ hours a day with the kids, they're going to have a relationship with the kids, one that will transmit the unhappiness caused by all those other things.

We can say that we don't want schools to take on the "onus of the legal adults in the children's lives." But, I don't see how we avoid that in all its ramifications when children spend so much time at school.
Michael said…
A "search" requires probable cause, and school administrators may not have that authority even if the Board were to approve such a policy (just because the Board approves something doesn't make it legal).

I agree that the texting, sexting, schmecting is a problem, but the phones are private property that cannot be searched wtihout proper authority. Heck, even police have to get a warrant (or a subpoena or something) to examine a cell phone from a suspect. If the police can't do it without court permission, then there is no way a school administrator can do it.

Best solution: ban student cell phones from school grounds.
CJ said…
From the ACLU - Student privacy rights and school security -

Another really helpful site for student (and staff) speech related issues is

First Amendment Schools
Dorothy Neville said…
Banning cell phones is impractical and would cause all sorts of outcry among parents. Kids are taking public transportation, sometimes in the dark, or are driving themselves, have jobs, responsibilities and many other reasons why they and their parents want them to have access to a cell phone on their way to and from school.
Patrick said…
Dorothy Neville has a good point. A lot of the reason some parents buy their kids cell phones is so they can call if their bus to or from school fails or if they are endangered along the way.

Cell phones should be put away during school hours, but they can't just leave them at home.
seattle citizen said…
someone told me about cell phones for sale that are directed at children: They have four keys: "Call parent guardian"; "Call 911"; "Call Grandma"; "Call trusted friend"; and "Audio Clip of Advice Regarding Emergencies: "When in Danger, When in Doubt, Run in Circles, Scream and Shout!" voiced by Robert Heinlein

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